We were delighted last year when the Scottish Parliament voted to make mountain hares a protected species. Unfortunately, ‘protection’ for animals in Scotland comes with caveats.

There are always exceptions to protections, usually in the form of a scheme that allows people to kill or disturb ‘protected’ species if granted a license. This is the case with mountain hares.

So, we have been working hard via stakeholder consultation to try to influence NatureScot, to ensure that the new licensing guidance was robust and without loopholes. They have just published the guidance; here are our thoughts.

Reasons for killing hares

Mountain hare

We are opposed to the killing of animals and believe that if it is permitted that should only be in exceptional circumstances. We pointed out to NatureScot that this is necessary if they are to meet the spirit as well as the letter of ‘protected’ status.

NatureScot has indicated that they will not grant licenses for the control of tick-borne diseases, as there is no evidence to support the theory that hares spread disease. This is very good news, as this is the main reason given for the mass culls of hares on grouse moors.

Another good point is that licence applicants will be required to provide a detailed herbivore management plan, giving evidence that hares are really doing damage and that populations are stable. This should discourage frivolous and fraudulent applications.

Unfortunately, the requirement for population data is being waived for those seeking to protect young trees, which will probably be most of the licenses granted. We were disappointed that Nature Scot chose to keep this exemption, despite wide stakeholder agreement that it should be dropped.

Methods of killing hares

The main way that hares will be killed is by shooting. One of our main points to NatureScot was that anybody shooting any animal should have to prove that they are competent to do so. The Scottish Government has just agreed to introduce this requirement for shooting deer. The Scottish Animal Welfare Commission agreed with this choice and stated:

"Training should be encouraged to ensure that understanding of welfare and ability to minimise suffering are paramount. Thus, training should be required before anyone is permitted to shoot, not only from an animal welfare perspective but also in regards safety aspects of using a dangerous weapon."

We agree, but think that this should apply to shooting any species. If these provisions are considered necessary for the welfare of deer there is no logical or scientific reason they should not be for other species. Thus, the only barriers must be economic, logistical, or political – none of which are acceptable reasons to delay making this necessary animal welfare improvement.

We are also concerned that falconry is a permitted method of killing. Using falcons to kill hares is neither a humane nor efficient way to do so, which leads us to suspect that anybody using this method is doing so for their own enjoyment, even if they supposedly have a legitimate reason for killing hares. We are also against exploiting birds in this way, and the harms it does to them.

What next?

NatureScot will keep this licensing scheme under review until at least 2024, which means that, in theory, they are willing to make changes during that time. We will try to monitor how and why hares are being killed, and continue to put pressure on NatureScot to strengthen the scheme where necessary.

Our wider goal is that any wild animal ‘management’, if it must take place, should meet the international principles of ethical wildlife control.