SNH still licensing mountain hare culls

Last month a leading upland ecologist claimed that Scottish landowners were causing ‘massive declines’ of mountain hares on grouse moors around Deeside, Aberdeenshire and blamed SNH for failing in its statutory duty to protect this species (see here).

We followed up that article with some gruesome photographs showing piles of culled mountain hares left to rot on another grouse moor, this time in the Angus Glens (see here). Unregulated mountain hare culling, it seemed, was widespread.

We encouraged blog readers to contact SNH to ask them about what we thought was their long-term failure to implement an effective monitoring scheme to protect mountain hare populations. SNH responded with their usual let’s-buy-ourselves-some-time line that ‘further research was forthcoming’.

Around the same time, MSP Alison Johnstone lodged a series of parliamentary questions about mountain hare culling and how it affected mountain hare populations (see here).

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has now responded to those questions (his answers presumably provided by SNH, the licensing authority). The bottom line is, SNH is still issuing licenses to allow the killing of mountain hares in the closed season, even though they admit that they are still unable to assess mountain hare abundance and therefore cannot possibly know what sort of impact, if any, these culls are having on the conservation status of the species. Quite remarkable. Where’s the precautionary principle?

Here are the parliamentary questions and answers:

Question S4W-18470: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds (a) on the health of mountain hare populations and (b) that is relevant to assessing whether mountain hare are in a favourable conservation status.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (04/12/2013):

The National Gamebag Census data for mountain hare compiled by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust shows no significant trend in the data between 1961 and 2009, despite marked cyclical fluctuations which are known to exist in around half of mountain hare populations.

A questionnaire survey commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2006-07 (SNH Commissioned Report 278) concluded that there was no evidence of an overall change in the distribution of mountain hares when compared to a similar study in mid 1990s. However, there may have been localised declines and possibly extinctions, undetectable at the 10km scale at which the data were collected and analysed.

The findings of this report provide SNH with an impression of the overall range of the species and some information on the numbers controlled, but SNH need more detailed information on hare abundance before it can be in a position to make a reliable assessment of the impact that culling is having on the population as a whole. To this end, SNH commissioned a study in 2008 into developing improved monitoring methods (Commissioned Report 444), but unfortunately, due to two severe winters hampering the fieldwork, the results did not provide SNH with the statistical relationship needed to progress this work. SNH therefore propose to develop a further programme of research, with the intention to commencing further fieldwork later in 2014. The exact detail of this work programme is still to be agreed.

Question S4W-18471: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what conservation action is planned to protect mountain hare populations.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (04/12/2013):

In order to properly inform licence applications and to have a better understanding of the effects of culling on hare populations, a cost-effective and easily-applied method of reliably estimating hare numbers is required. This is the immediate priority and, once developed, will enable better monitoring schemes to be developed, and provision of information on population status will be improved also. Such data would then be used to inform future management decisions concerning the species, as necessary.

Question S4W-18472: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds on the number of mountain hare that are culled annually and the impact of this on golden eagles (a) dispersing from, (b) likely to be recruited to or (c) nesting in natura sites for which golden eagles are a designated interest.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (03/12/2013):

The Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Commissioned Report 278 indicated that a total of 24,529 mountain hares were harvested in 2006-07 across 90 sporting estates (of these, 11,906 were reported to have been taken by 26 estates). This represents 7% of the 1995 published Scottish population estimate of 350,000 and is subject to a 50% margin of error.

SNH Commissioned Report 278 on the distribution of Mountain Hare in Scotland shows hares present in all or part of the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for golden eagles.

The Report also indicates that the vast majority of hare control occurs in the central and eastern Highlands. In these areas, Report 278 suggests that there is a mixed picture of hare distributional change between 1995-96 and 2006-07 with no clear pattern of decline. The 2006-07 data are the most recent SNH holds.

(a) Golden eagles take several years to reach breeding age and juvenile birds disperse from their parent’s breeding territory and range over the Highlands and islands to varying degrees i.e. the young birds are not tied to the SPAs.

As breeding adult birds are territorial, these young birds mainly use areas of suitable habitat that does not form part of a territorial range. Some of the areas these birds will be using will be areas where hare control is being carried out. SNH Report 278 indicates that more hares are controlled from September to February, although levels of hares removed for tick control are fairly similar across the year.

(b) Young golden eagles often return and try to settle close to where they were born although some settle elsewhere. The SPAs therefore are reliant on the wider golden eagle population to support recruitment. Only a proportion of the young eagles survive to reach breeding age and it is unknown what, if any, effect the reductions in hare numbers will have on recruitment.

(c) Live prey is of key importance for chick development and successful breeding. As with (a) and (b) there is a potential impact through reducing available prey and/or requiring the birds to prey more on grouse.

Question S4W-18473: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government what information it holds on a link between the culling of mountain hare and the incidence of (a) louping ill or (b) other diseases transmitted by sheep ticks or other hare parasites to red grouse.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (03/12/2013):

The scientific evidence on this subject has been reviewed in a 2009 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology “Culling wildlife hosts to control disease: mountain hares, red grouse and louping ill virus” by A Harrison et al.- see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01834.x/abstract.

The authors conclude that there is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities.

Question S4W-18474: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government how it controls the culling of mountain hare.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (04/12/2013):

Mountain hare are protected by a close season during which no culling can be carried out by any method except under licence granted by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Mountain hare are also covered by Regulation 41 of The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 which prohibits the use of certain methods of taking or killing wild animals, including the use of traps which are non-selective according to their principle or their condition of use. The use of such traps can be licensed by SNH. The use of such traps is not permissible under the terms of a general licence but can be licenced by SNH.

Question S4W-18475: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 19/11/2013

To ask the Scottish Government how many applications it has (a) received and (b) granted for the culling of mountain hare since 2011, broken down by (i) year, (ii) purpose and (iii) area.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (03/12/2013):

Licences are required to control mountain hares at any time using certain otherwise prohibited means, or to kill them by any method during the “closed season”. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is the licensing authority.

SNH received one application for the control of mountain hare by snaring in 2011. SNH granted that licence in 2012 and it has been amended twice. The licence was granted for the purpose of preventing serious damage to woodland.

SNH received five applications for the control of mountain hare in 2012. Two of these applications were refused. All of the remaining three were to shoot hares out-of-season and for preventing serious damage to woodland. One was in Highland, one in Moray and one in Aberdeenshire.

SNH received three applications for the control of mountain hare in 2013. Two of these were applications to renew licences issued in 2012 (one in Moray and one in Aberdeenshire). The remaining application was for another site in Moray, and again was for the purpose of preventing serious damage to woodland. Licences were granted for all three, and all three relating to shooting hares out-of-season.


7 Responses to “SNH still licensing mountain hare culls”

  1. December 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    I often see a lot of damage in woodland on shooting estates where snaring is taking place. This is caused by trees being cut and areas cleared so walls of branches can be erected through the woodland to guide animals towards a stink pit. And what is it I find dumped as bait into the center of the ring of snares at the stink pit clearing? Hares.

  2. 2 nirofo
    December 11, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    SNH is not fit for purpose and is failing woefully in it’s duty to protect wildlife and the environment at all levels, it seems it’s main priority is to pander to the wishes of the powerful shooting estate owners and windfarm entrepreneurs, many of whom are also members of the government with controlling powers over them. SNH and NE should be outwith control of government interference with no responsibility to DEFRA and with strong powers to impose heavy penalties on those who fail to protect wildlife and the environment. The days of NERC and NCC were not perfect by any means but were far better at their role than this government controlled shower we have now.

    • 3 Circus maxima
      December 11, 2013 at 7:30 pm

      Agreed, since Andrew Thin took over SNH has lost its direction and its credibility…just ask their staff when the bosses are not looking. But its interesting to note that the ministers response effectively states that the golden eagle spa’s are inadequate. Under the directive the SPA should protect all parts of the birds life cycle, but the minister clearly states that they are no use for juvenile birds. So lets look forward to new SPA’s for young eagles waiting for a chance to get back to the SPA where they were raised.

  3. 4 John Mills
    December 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    SNH is not fit for purpose. The Scottish Government panders to the estate owners and other vested interests. Why have MSP’s not challenged the woeful contradictions apparent in SNH’s reply?

  4. 5 Rural Rascal
    December 12, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Hang on a moment…….what colour are the hares in your photo? What’s their close season? During the open season they are in winter coat, which is white. What’s unregulated about that? Be careful when you use old photos.

    • December 12, 2013 at 11:54 pm

      Nothing old about this photo.

      You might argue that having an open and closed season is ‘regulation’, and in a way, it is, in that there is a period during the year when hares can be culled (by certain methods) and a period when they can’t be culled unless under a specific licence.

      However, the ‘regulation’ we’re talking about is not as superficial as the ‘regulation’ you’re talking about. During that ‘open season’, how much ‘regulation’ is there on the number of hares that can be culled? None whatsoever. That, in our book, is clearly unregulated.

  5. 7 Merlin
    December 13, 2013 at 9:46 am

    “There is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain Hares might increase Grouse densities”
    Enough said, they should be taken off the game list until there numbers recover in the areas where they have been decimated, this is a simple case of if you cant remove the eagles legally remove their prey!

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