On the day the mountain hare begins life as a fully protected species in Scotland, SGA Media asked Ronnie Kippen, a senior gamekeeper who has managed mountain hare populations for decades, what the new law will actually mean for conservation of the species.
“The mountain hare, now, has no real asset value. Foresters might like them as a species but they damage trees.
“What they should have done is maintained an ability to manage them, in the areas with the highest populations (grouse moors), based on a system of counts and returns to NatureScot. That would have safeguarded the conservation status but allowed management. In turn, that would have kept healthy breeding hares in core areas.
“What you have now is the worst of all worlds. Within a few years, hares will start to die off on grouse moors because they will reach a peak and then disease will start to sweep through them. They are very prone to gut parasites at high densities. Then what?
“Scotland has ambitious tree planting targets, for climate mitigation. What do hares eat? Trees. It’s madness. You are going to get higher grazing damage and NatureScot will have to make licences really simple for forestry because otherwise they will be snowed under with applications for trees. But if it is too easy to get a licence, conservationists will start complaining about hares continuing to be shot despite protection. It’s a mess.
“Tree planting also kills the hare’s preferred habitat but that’s not been considered.
“There was no due diligence done whatsoever on why the hares had declined so much away from grouse moors before that decision to licence was taken. It should have been a condition of law making in the Parliament.
“Nor was there any attempt to see this beyond a ‘grouse’ issue. That was the critical mistake, if the issue was genuinely about hare conservation.
“Fair play to Alison Johnstone, the campaigners and the Greens, they manipulated the Parliament on the back of emotive pictures. But when the hare dies as a species, they can’t blame the places which had them in abundance but managed their populations. They need to look at themselves for being siloed from the truth.
“If they are to rectify things they need to look- for the first time- at why mountain hares were- and are- so sparse elsewhere. That was the elephant in the room. They never ever considered that. They saw it as a grouse moor issue they wanted out of their inboxes.
“The SGA has proposed translocating hares from grouse moors. It is a good idea. Lots of people see merit in it. But it will be hard because the rules on translocations say you need to rectify why they have been lost in the area you are translocating them, to. Again, the same problem. Why have they gone from those non-grouse areas? No one was interested in addressing this. Well, it’s not up to us (gamekeepers) to sort that. We’ve had hares in good number all along, for hundreds of years.”