Gamekeepers are advocating a conservation plan to save the mountain hare which would see the native mammals translocated from grouse moors to areas which have lost viable populations.
The countryside workers believe grouse estates could act as donors of live trapped hares which could be used to rebuild populations where land use change has shrunk their range.
This summer Scottish Parliament voted to protect the mountain hare and end all management of the species, unless under specific licences.
Gamekeepers previously managed populations in the open season to reduce disease and tick numbers and to protect habitats. Organised hare shoots also brought money to the local economy and food for the food chain.
Land managers are now in discussions with Scottish Government about how a licensing system may operate but believe licensed translocations should be on the table in talks, alongside lethal control options.
Species translocations have been used successfully in conservation with donor beavers from the Tay this week building their first dams in Exmoor for 400 years.
Pine martens, Capercaillie and Sea Eagles have all seen UK populations bolstered at various times through translocation.
Mountain hares are currently in unfavourable status but latest research shows grouse moors can contain populations up to 35 times higher than non-managed moors.
Whilst gamekeepers believe full protection is not the solution for hare conservation, they feel the surfeit of hares on grouse moors could be used positively to help expand the species’ shrunken Scottish range elsewhere.
“Our opposition to the Parliament’s decision is well known, especially if conservation was the principal purpose. However, politicians decided, so it’s time to move on," said Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman, Alex Hogg.
“Traditionally, hares were managed on moors when their numbers got very high.
“One consequence of that population reduction was that the remaining hares were healthy and less susceptible to die-off events from the close spread of the gut parasites which they are highly susceptible to, although this was experienced on Perthshire and Donside grouse moors when deep snow made management impossible and hares died in big numbers.
“Obviously, hare management is no longer an option, unless through lethal control under licence. Instead of culling as the only option- and the environment NGOs made their views clear on this- why not use a quota of these hares from the remaining core grouse moor areas to expand the hare range in places which used to have them but no longer do because the management, or mismanagement, shrunk their habitat? It would also lessen the chance of hares dying off from disease.
“If the point of protection is conservation, this should be roundly supported. It would also avoid a similar scenario to beavers which were protected, then campaigners opposed them being legally killed, in number, under licence.”
Gamekeepers believe the mountain hare faces more threats now, since protection was announced, because of Climate Emergency mitigations.
Scottish Government has increasing annual targets for subsidised tree planting but mountain hares eat young trees, and new plantings will squeeze their already contracting range.
“The loss of the hare’s preferred habitat through afforestation and regeneration has been continuous over decades. That will get worse," added Mr Hogg.
“There will be a need to cull more hares under licence, as a response to climate concerns, and encroachment onto their habitat will increase as more areas are planted or re-stocked. This is why translocating a quota of hares to areas which want them, and previously sustained them, will make them more resilient generally.
“It is entirely wrong that gamekeepers should be associated negatively with mountain hares when they have managed populations for centuries and still have more hares than anyone else.
“This is an opportunity for grouse moors to be positively associated with their improved conservation status, something which the Parliament desires.”