Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, said: “If a picture of culled hares emerges there tends to be a reaction – particularly on social media – that somehow this activity is wrong. This is an understandable conclusion particularly if a member of the public is not conversant with conservation needs and methods. We are very keen to address those concerns and provide people with accurate information.
“We wish to reassure people that when culls are taking place there is no question of the population being ‘wiped out’. Responsible culling of a range of species, including hares, is recognised and supported by a wide range of conservation bodies. There has been an issue raised by some about the scale of culling and it should be made clear that no responsible organisation or landowner would support indiscriminate culling. Within moorland management, voluntary restraint is exercised and hares are only culled when numbers are at a high enough level to require it. There is no point in culling hares, or indeed any desire to, if there could be any risk to their conservation status.
“Mountain hare populations move in cycles and culling is only done when numbers are high. This is still done for the purpose of keeping numbers at a sustainable level, as 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. It is important that the general public are made aware of the facts.
“When the population is at a lower point in the cycle, no culling is carried out, that is clear and established practice. In recent years, the number of hares in parts of the Cairngorms has risen considerably and to levels which has driven the need for properly organised and humane culls, all carried out within the open season. Several estates in the Cairngorms have been involved using highly trained professional staff. Culling is done legally and in accordance with best practice, and often also because there is a duty on estates to prevent grazing pressure on rare flora such as juniper and sphagnum moss. Estates would be negligent if they ignored such responsibilities that are placed on them, particularly in relation to the protection of sites of scientific interest.
“Culling, as with deer management, is not done on a whim or without good information on populations. Moorland keepers have long experience of managing hares and use a variety of methods of assessing numbers and therefore the appropriate level of sustainable cull. Culling is a time consuming operation which would generally reduce the population by a maximum of 10-20%. Grouse moors, due to the way they are managed, are the best reservoirs and producers of mountain hares anywhere in the country. But the flip side of that is that they then need to be managed periodically as the population climbs to prevent overgrazing and disease problems.
“Moorland managers value their mountain hares as an important part of the wildlife assemblage, and they are a food source for Golden eagles which are valued on many moorland estates in the Cairngorms. Many estates in the Cairngorms where hare culls have been carried out this year are part of a Scottish Natural Hertiage (SNH) funded research project to develop new methods of counting hares. Those estates are keen to work with the scientists to continually improve methods and practice and are especially conscious of the need for any culling to be done sustainably. More about this project can be found out from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the James Hutton Institute who are carrying out the research.
“Management of hares by culling in this way is no different to managing deer or rabbits. Some conservation bodies and indeed private estates organise significantly large culls of native red deer to reduce their deer numbers to near zero to encourage regeneration and ongoing protection of trees and scrub growth. In contrast, moorland managers cull mountain hares to maintain the population at a sustainable level and to conserve the open heather habitat.”