A full ban on the culling of mountain hares could lead to serious damage to habitats and the species, a national organisation has warned.
Figures obtained under freedom of information laws by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) from Scottish National Heritage (SNH) show that growing numbers of mountain hares are being culled outside of the agreed seasons to prevent them causing serious damage to new trees.
Although mountain hares have conservation status and are protected by law at vulnerable times of the year, culls out of season can be sanctioned by SNH when it is deemed necessary to protect against disease and damage.
The SGA has found that since 2012 all licences for year-round culls in Scotland have been to prevent hares causing serious damage to young trees..
On top of those culled during open season, applications for a further 575 hares to be culled in the close season were approved in 2014 with an additional 700 in 2015. Up to the end of March 2016, SNH had granted licences for 638 hares to be controlled outside of the legal season on five sites to protect new saplings.
Animal rights campaigners, however, are calling for a complete ban on the killing of mountain hares and are set to protest outside Holyrood next week. They blame grouse estates for heavy culls to prevent disease and to minimise the spread of tick. The SGA has pointed out that of the 26 applications made to SNH for out of season licences up to March 2016, only two were related to aspects of grouse moor management and both licences were refused.
SGA committee member Ronnie Kippen, a gamekeeper for 45 years, said: “In the 80s there were two consecutive years where we couldn’t control the hare numbers because of heavy snow. In the spring of year three, they died in their thousands from intestinal parasites and it took five or six years for their numbers to come back again.
“If you don’t manage the population, you are looking at serious damage to habitats and dead hares lying everywhere rather than going back into the food chain.”
Robbie Kernahan, SNH’s head of national operations, said: “We’re asking estates for restraint on large-scale culls of mountain hares which could jeopardise the conservation status of mountain hares. We can’t know what every shooting estate is doing in this respect, but we’re working with the key interest groups to encourage good practice.”