“… and little hunted hares”

The inglorious 12th August opened up our grouse moors here in Scotland to the annual slaughter of birds which will continue until 10th December.  The culling of hares however goes on all year round, though licenses are needed to shoot them during the so-called close season between February and September.  According to Rob Edwards in the Sunday National on 2 June, 24 licences to kill brown hares were handed out in 2018 not just to farms and estates but also to a rose grower and a wind farm.

dead brown hares

Some licences specify the number of hares that can be shot; others, such as the one granted to Inverness Airport until October 2022 “for the purpose of preserving public health or safety”, say that “as many as required” could be shot.  I should say here that according to a Highlands and Islands Airports spokesperson, no brown hares have been killed so far.

Edwards points out that Scottish National Heritage, who issue the licences, have not refused any application in the last two years and they insist that killing hares is a last resort in order to protect trees, crops or public safety; 6, 902 licences were issued between 2012 and March of this year.  The close season is supposed to protect pregnant hares, and then young leverets from being left to starve.  Who knows how many are killed during the rest of the year, in the well-named open season.  So much for the brown hare being a protected species in Scotland with changes in farming methods fingered for their declining numbers.

mountain hare running in winter, photo by Andy Howard

Mountain hares are killed on sporting estates in order to keep up the number of grouse available for shooting.  Landed estates can apply for licences to shoot these hares during the close season and they do: 850 were shot in 2018 – but I wonder who does the counting and if all the licensees stop when they reach their ‘quota’.


mountain hare in Scotland


Aside from Edwards’ article, there’s been other publicity about this including film of the killing of mountain hares by OneKind  (July 2018)which suggests that up to 26,000 might be killed during the open season.  When it was raised in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister expressed her disquiet at the footage and promised that options would be explored to prevent mass culling, including legislation.  There’s an independent inquiry, set up by the Scottish Government (in 2017?), going on into the management of grouse moors, whether they’re complying with the law and how they can be environmentally sustainable while contributing to the rural economy.  It’s looking not just at hare culls but also at heather, whin and grass burning. It’s being chaired by Professor Alan Werrity and is due to report later this year, although I believe there’s already been a delay in publishing its findings.

In the meantime, Alison Johnstone of the Scottish Green Party is consulting (until 15 September) on her proposed Bill: Protection & Conservation of Wild Mammals (Scotland).  This aims to end the hunting of wild mammals with dogs and the routine killing of wildlife in Scotland.  She wants all killing of brown hares, mountain hares and foxes to be licenced.

Her colleague Andy Wightman, with whom I find it hard to disagree, was quoted on 12 August as saying: “There’s nothing glorious about the 12th of August or about the intensive and damaging killing, burning, road construction and artificial medication that is associated with driven grouse shooting.  It’s time for the Scottish Government to come into the 21st century and end this cruel practice.  That these barren Victorian hunting grounds remain a playground for the privileged few is a stark reminder of the inequality that still persists over so much of Scotland’s countryside.  Scotland’s land needs to be freed up for the benefit of all of its people and used in ways that secures a sustainable future for our country.  The continuation of this barbaric practice makes no economic or moral sense in modern Scotland.”

Revive – a coalition of five organisations – have produced a very good wee booklet called “The Case for Reforming Scotland’s driven Grouse Moors” grouse moors.  They’re concerned about land use, snares and traps, mass killing of mountain hares, the killing of protected birds of prey, mass outdoor medication, public health, unregulated hill tracks and environmental damage.  Their website is http://www.revive.scot.

For once, not all publicity on 12 August was favourable for the shooting estates. Channel 4 News had an 8-minute story on the killing of wildlife that was part of the management of grouse moors, showing – after a warning about distressing scenes – a fox and a badger caught in snares,  a buzzard being killed in a crow trap, a list of over 1000 creatures killed on an estate in the Borders and film of traps and snares in Perthshire. A spokesman for the RSPB said that much of the killing was “unaccountable”.  The chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association claimed that in the absence of other predators, their job was to “balance things up”.   I understand that both STV news and Sky news had similar stories that day.

It was also last month that there was some publicity around the conviction and sentencing of a gamekeeper on an estate in Duns who pleaded guilty to killing 3 buzzards, 2 goshawks, 3 badgers and an otter. He’d also been charged with setting illegal snares and being in possession of an illegal pesticide – carbofuran.  The keeper has to carry out 225 hours of unpaid community work and will be under curfew at night for 10 months. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association described his activities as a gross breach of their wildlife crime policy and admitted that it reflected badly on the reputation of the entire profession.  But was this one rogue keeper or one who felt under pressure to keep his job and maybe also his accommodation?

Kevin McKenna had a powerful article in The Observer on 18 August on the killing of eagles associated with shooting estates.  Almost a third of eagles which were tracked by satellite died “in suspicious circumstances” with the majority found on grouse moors.  Of 131 young eagles which were tracked over 12 years up to 2017, 41 which had disappeared “were probably killed”.  He outlined other questionable methods which these estates use in order to protect their income from grouse shooting, explained our skewed pattern of land ownership dating back to the 16th century and countered the argument of landowners that grouse shooting is vital for the local economy.

Common Weal, another of the Revive coalition members along with OneKind, also question the economic benefits of grouse shooting estates .  Their paper called Back to Life found that grouse moors were the least economically productive per hectare compared with agriculture, biomass and solar farms.  They want the rural economy to be more diverse, with renewable energy production, managed forestry, eco-tourism and rewilding schemes but they acknowledge that this change will be neither quick nor easy.

The country sports lobby say they’re supporting 8800 full time jobs in Scotland and they put £155 million into the Scottish economy each year.  Grouse moors make up maybe 20% of Scotland and this is the best they can do by way of safeguarding the “fragile rural economy”.  I look forward to hearing what’s in the Werrity Report but it’s becoming clear to me that the government needs to be much bolder when it comes to land reform; this is what’s going to make the rural economy less “fragile”.

It’s well over 50 years since I read in school the poem “The Bells of Heaven” by Ralph Hodgson but its final line about “… little hunted hares” has stayed with me.  It haunts me still.




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