Mountain hare slaughter set to continue in breach of EU regulations

A couple of weeks ago, Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell lodged the following parliamentary question:

Question S5W-00044, Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife, Scottish Green Party); Lodged: 09/05/2016:

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the culling of mountain hares on estates practising driven grouse shooting.

mountain-hare-cull-angus-glens-large - Copy

Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham has now answered with this:

The Scottish Government does not support large, indiscriminate culls of mountain hares in Scotland and recognises the concerns that have been expressed about the status of mountain hare populations in Scotland. The Scottish Government acknowledges that mountain hares are a legitimate quarry species and that there may be local requirements to control mountain hares to protect gamebirds and young trees. Any control of mountain hares should be undertaken in accordance with obligations under the EU Habitats Directive.

Given the concerns about possible over-exploitation, information on the management of hares has been reviewed by independent experts from the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Scientific Advisory Committee. This review was published in October 2015 and is available at: http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1765931.pdf. The review identified the need for improved monitoring and data to assess national trends of mountain hare populations.

This work is underway in the form of a collaborative four year study (2014-17) involving SNH and scientists in the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, on trialling various methods of counting hares. The study has the aim of developing a reliable and cost-effective means of assessing mountain hare population density.

SNH is also working with Scottish Land & Estates to encourage greater transparency in the reasons why estates cull hares and to encourage estates to collaborate and develop a more measured and coordinated approach to sustanable hare management.


Oh, where to begin!

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment says the culls should be done in accordance with obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. Yes, they should be, but they’re not, are they? They can’t possibly be because one of the obligations is a legal requirement to ensure the management of this species “is compatible with the species being maintained at a favourable conservation status“. To assess whether the species’ conservation status is favourable or unfavourable requires decent population-level data to establish the impact of these unregulated mass culls. Those data are not yet available (although Dr Adam Watson has provided long-term mountain hare counts, see below).

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment says work is underway to get these data, but that work doesn’t finish until 2017. In the meantime, SNH should have applied the precautionary principle and placed a temporary moratorium on mountain hare culling, as they were asked to do in 2015 by ten conservation organisations (see here). SNH has chosen instead to call on sporting estates to undertake ‘voluntary restraint‘, a doomed policy already proven not to be working (e.g. see here and here). Of course this approach isn’t going to work when the estates’ representative organisation, SLE, insists, without supportive evidence, “there is no issue over population reduction” (see here).

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment refers to an independent review of sustainable moorland management, which included information about mountain hare culling. She mentions that the review identified the need for improved monitoring and data. What she forgot to mention was that this review also included the following statement (see page 20):

Given that culling can reduce mountain hare densities to extremely low levels locally (Laurenson et al., 2003), and population trends are poorly known despite the species being listed under the Habitats Directive, the case for widespread and intensive culling of mountain hares in the interests of louping-ill control has not been made.

She also forgot to mention something else reported in this review, the availability of long-term time series data of mountain hare counts by Dr Adam Watson (see page 21):

These latter data derive from 63 moorland sites, mainly in upland Aberdeenshire, with data in some cases extending back to the 1940s. Initial examination of this remarkable data set provides a strong prima facie case for long term population declines across moorland but not arctic-alpine habitats.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment also says that SNH is working with SLE to encourage ‘greater transparency’ about why mountain hares are culled. That’s an interesting one. Earlier this year, SLE provided explanations for why these culls take place. Apparently it’s because “hares can affect fragile habitats through grazing pressure, can spread sheep tick which also affects red grouse, and can cause the failure of tree-planting schemes”. They also said, contradictorily, that mountain hares are culled “to conserve the open heather habitat” (see here). At the time, we took these reasons apart as follows:

Hares can affect fragile habitats through grazing pressure“. They probably can, although if their natural predators weren’t being exterminated this would lessen any pressure. And would those be the same fragile habitats that are routinely burned with increasing frequency and intensity as part of grouse moor ‘management’, causing industrial-scale environmental damage (e.g. see here and here)?

Mountain hares can cause the failure of tree-planting schemes“. They probably can, but how many tree-planting schemes are taking place on driven grouse moors? According to Doug McAdam (CEO of SLE), hare culling takes place “to conserve the open heather habitat“. So which is it? It can’t be both.

Mountain hares can spread sheep tick which also affects red grouse“. Ah, and there it is! What this all comes down to – mountain hares are inconvenient to grouse moor managers whose sole interest is to produce an absurdly excessive population of red grouse so they can be shot for fun.

Given that the independent review, referenced above by the Cabinet Secretary, states that “the case for widespread and intensive culling of  mountain hares in the interests of louping-ill control has not been made”, how come SLE and their member estates are still permitted to carry on with this slaughter?

In summary then, the Scottish Government doesn’t support large, indiscriminate culls of mountain hares, and neither do ten conservation organisations, and neither does a large proportion of the general public who responded angrily to images of this year’s massacre. The culls are in clear breach of the EU Habitats Directive because the impact of culling on the species’ conservation status is unknown, although long-term counts, dating back to the 1940s, provide a strong prima facie case showing long-term population declines of mountain hares on grouse moors.

And yet the culls are set to continue again later this year when the closed season ends on 31 July.

Massive failure by the Scottish Government and its statutory conservation agency SNH.

But watch this space – the charity OneKind is planning to launch a campaign against mountain hare culling – more details to follow later this year.

19 Responses to “Mountain hare slaughter set to continue in breach of EU regulations”

  1. 1 Chris Roberts
    May 28, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Sounds like the same rhetoric coming from this minister as her predecessor Dr Dolittle. In other words just let the killing estates carry on decimating our wildlife with impunity. Ruining Scotland’s landscapes and reputation along the way.

  2. 2 Secret Squirrel
    May 28, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Ministers don’t write these replies, civil servants do so no surprise new minister is same as old minister.

    The inclusion of GWCT is laughable

    • May 29, 2016 at 12:07 am

      You are probably correct… written by the faceless civil servants but still signed off by the minister. What I would like to know is how many of the faceless civil servants have an interest in shooting? How do we find this out? Can this sort of stuff be FOI’d?
      Maybe there is something on the Scottish Government web site?

  3. 4 Simon Tucker
    May 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    No matter who you vote for the government always gets in.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

    et cetera, et cetera

  4. 5 nirofo
    May 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Sounds distinctly like a copy and paste whitewash response, wherever Red Grouse shooting is involved SNH and the Scottish Government toe the line or else. There’s only one definitive answer to all this killing of our wildlife, ban driven grouse shooting totally.

  5. 6 Andy S
    May 29, 2016 at 12:20 am

    Shame to say it, but did anybody seriously expect any change with the introduction of a new minister? The EU may be considered by some to have too much control over the UK with introduced legislation but how much of this do the government or any individual ministers take any notice of. And this applies to all walks of life, not just wildlife issues. SNH, Defra and many other organisations will all do as they are told by government and, when it comes to the moorland and countryside issues, governments decisions and policies will always benefit landowners. It mat not be ” politically correct ” to say that, in certain ways, it is a class issue but hey ho – so what – it is. The old boys network in this country is so deeply integrated and so extensive that it is difficult to see how the persecution problem will ever be resolved. The recently announced action being taken by the EU against the UK government for failing to look after the uplands properly is good on the face of it, but just how long is this process likely to be based on the current speed ( or lack of it ) of most judicial procedures? The current suffering and probable eventual extinction of any amount of wildlife in badly managed upland areas is not going to wait whilst the UK government is forced ( or not ) to get their act together. I should add that I am not advocating staying or leaving the EU with the above comments but simply highlighting the fact that EU policies on wildlife do not seem to affect the UK governments approach to our current wildlife persecution problems.

  6. 7 heclasu
    May 29, 2016 at 1:20 am

    Not a good start!

  7. 8 Jack Snipe
    May 29, 2016 at 1:59 am

    It’s difficult to remain calm and not be outraged by the sheer arrogance of the hunting lobby on this particular issue, but I find it causes added personal stress knowing how much the conservation movement in this country is in disarray due to too many officers of SNH (and in my opinion, RSPB) trying desperately hard to be seen as “moderate” and “reasonable.” All it ever leads to is an uncomfortable compromise, and sometimes it even becomes difficult to distinguish the friends of wildlife from the enemy. I know this isn’t a popular point of view, and I must stress that I have great respect for many employees of both organisations; it’s corporate policy and direction I’m uncomfortable with. It’s time to waken up and realise that there is a fight to be fought, and to take it far more seriously. RPUK is a shining light in the gloom, and I know that like myself many must be grateful for its existence. However, and I’ve said this before, we’re quite simply not getting our message across to a wide enough audience. There is a degree of reluctance by scientific snobs to associate with animal welfare lobby groups, but I fail to see why there should be any perceived inconsistency between such groups on ethical issues; Greer Hart (Snr) argued this very reasonably in a recent blog on a separate thread.

    Regarding the justification for killing Mountain Hares, it is obviously possible to take virtually any conspicuous wild animal in the UK and “prove” or construct some evidence to suggest that it causes some degree of negative impact on man’s activities. Even something as ridiculously frivolous (but deadly) as grouse shooting. However is it acceptable to society that for the sake of a very small minority of the population who adopt an unethical approach to the killing of wildlife as pleasure, that the species in question should be subject to persecution? I’d go as far as to argue that the same principle applies to the grouse, which no-one actually needs to shoot for any constructive purpose anyway. It’s destructive and cruel, even without considering the added impact on the environment due to moorland management, or on rare species of predator like the Hen Harrier.

    Is there any reasonable justification to deny Mountain Hares any less protection from persecution than a Brown Hare or a House Sparrow? The degree to which we afford legal protection to wildlife is a measure of our civilisation as a society, and we’ve a long way to go to fulfil that objective. Only by conservation bodies and wildlife interest groups combining forces can we hope to make faster progress. Come on RSPB, get your act together. When I was a young, enthusiastic and optimistic naturalist, and a member of the Junior Bird Recorders’ Club, later to become the Young Ornithologists’ Club, raising awareness of the challenges facing birdlife in the minds of the nation’s youth was a prime objective; nowadays it seems to have turned into a commercial childcare service, more like a play group with face painting and “nature games.” What’s the point of boasting about having a million members, and apparently not reflecting this by doing more to protect persecuted wildlife?

    I’d like to see RPUK growing into a larger and even more effective lobby for persecuted raptors, one that is more widely respected and communicating to a far wider audience. Right now it’s a very powerful acorn, which I don’t mean in any demeaning sense. The opposite in fact.

  8. May 29, 2016 at 10:24 am

    We wont win this fight by making an issue about hen harriers (or any other bird ) alone. The strength of the establishment means that we wont make any significant change (rapid) on our own and we will need to get external help, we need the EU. We might be viewing this as a simplistic change but realistically we are pushing against deeply embeded traditions and practices that are seen as basic rights. They are taken as a given and not even questiioned by government landuse strategies and bodies like SNH. The extent that the government and SNH have been drawn into the “conflict resolution” argument only over the single issue of raptor persecution reveals it all.

    We need to complain to the EU about all the different breaches and incidents. We need the EU to act as a well reasoned judge and act on our behalf. We need to bring all of the issues into the debate.

    The RSPB have done a fantastic job over the burning of blanket bog..change is going to come…. the pace is still glacial but without the EU it would be geological. We need to push at every angle, lead shot, drainage, food standards, carbon release, protected habitats, landscape impacts, gun laws, snaring and animal cruelty

  9. 10 Tony Warburton MBE
    May 29, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Andy S. Yes, I for one did indeed ‘seriously expect a change with the appointment of a new minister’ and the disappearance of Aileen the Silent, albeit on the slender evidence of Roseanna Cunningham at least getting vicarious liability on the Scottish statute books before she left for pastures new. True, we have yet to see VL result in a guilty verdict, but who knows, that might not be too far away. Sadly, SC hasn’t exactly set the pulses racing as yet but at least she responds to questions, and I still live in hope she will prove to be an ally in our quest to end the selfish farce of driven grouse shooting. Let us give her a bit of time to clear the back log of dross left behind by the last useless incumbent.

    • 11 Andy S
      May 30, 2016 at 1:52 am

      Mr Warburton, Sir – I totally agree that it would be almost impossible for the new minister to be as useless as the previous one and I also agree that to get responses to questions raised is a step in the right direction albeit that some of the answers may not be the right ones from our point of view. I truly hope that Roseanna Cunningham can make some further positive advances on her previous achievement in due course. The thing that worries me, and that point that I was previously trying to make is the speed of the system rather than the individuals who are at least willing to try. I am almost as far south of the UK as it is possible to get and, although the biggest issues of persecution are rare in this part of country, I take an interest in events in all parts of the UK. In the case of the ongoing persecution in the uplands of England as regularly reported on this blog, there are a number of species that really don’t have time on their sides. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the alternative is. ( I wasn’t being facetious with the ” sir “, I wasn’t sure how to address you )

    • May 30, 2016 at 11:16 am

      Hi Tony,

      One correction to be made –

      You wrote, “We have yet to see VL result in a guilty verdict”.

      To date, two vicarious liability prosecutions have resulted in a guilty verdict.

      Dec 2014: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/first-conviction-in-landmark-vicarious-liability-case/

      Dec 2015: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/sporting-agent-on-cardross-estate-convicted-in-latest-vicarious-liability-case/

      Cheers, RPUK

      • 13 Jack Snipe
        May 30, 2016 at 1:28 pm

        Does anyone seriously believe that vicarious liability will make the slightest difference to the arrogance of landowners who expect their gamekeepers to do their duty and continue to “control” harriers and other raptors? To me it appears to be only a marginal step in the right direction in that both criminals are punished. Whether that alone is sufficient to change the habits of generations is highly questionable. They’ll just be more careful in future not to get caught. The suspension of general licences is even more trivial and far too easy to circumnavigate. Both of these solutions are only tinkering with the real problem, and in a real sense are only causing a distraction. Mark Avery’s petition is laudable, but getting next to nowhere compared to e-petitions on far less serious issues. We need to up the anti, and not just moan among ourselves. I’ll keep saying it, the RSPB needs to reappraise its stance, as many right now don’t take them at all seriously. Quite frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves.

        • 14 dave angel
          May 30, 2016 at 5:17 pm

          Vicarious liability shouldn’t be a problem for the most unscrupulous and cynical landowners and employers. All they have to do is have the correct paperwork and procedures in place, and then just carry on before on a nod and a wink basis with their employees. Which is fine so long as in the event of them being caught the employee is prepared to go along with the pretence that he was acting against the specific instructions of his employer. The employee receives a fine, which the employer pays, and the employer escapes prosecution.

          The answer of course is to impose punishments which the employee cannot escape ie imprisonment. That might well loosen tongues and allow a vicarious liability prosecution to proceed.

          And I wouldn’t underestimate the effect a VL prosecution could have on a land owner. There’s subsidies at risk and degree of social embarrassment and opprobrium involved.

  10. 15 Tony Warburton MBE
    May 30, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks RPUK – I stand corrected. So Roseanna C. has at least had some effect, ineffectual though the fines were, Dave Angel is right of course, until both employee and employer both get a prison sentence and are shamed in the main media, these atrocities will continue. All we can do is carry the fight to them with the help of the incredible RPUK and pray that we will win the war in the end. Remember, even Genghis Kahn, Rasputin and Hitler got their just deserts in the end! So keep the faith folks.

    Andy S. I am but a mere peasant, so ‘Tony’ is the appropriate address!!! The MBE was for ‘Services to Owl Conservation’. See ‘World Owl Trust’ on http://www.owls.org

  11. May 30, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    This is an appalling example of placing greed and so called sport before humanity and common sense.

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