RSPB Scotland is calling for an immediate ban on culling in the wake of a new report.
Scotland’s mountain hare population has declined by 90% on some grouse moors, according to new data from RSPB Scotland.
A report for the wildlife charity found hare numbers across the country have undergone a “catastrophic” decline, with moorland management identified as the primary cause.
As a result, the status of the species has been downgraded to unfavourable, meaning that special conservation action needs to be undertaken to arrest further declines and aid their recovery.
The report follows a warning from Scottish Natural Heritage that mountain hares must be offered additional protection, especially in areas of intensive grouse shooting.
RSPB Scotland is now calling for an immediate halt to mountain hare culls across the country.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, the charity’s head of species and land management, said: “We have been extremely concerned about the state of our mountain hare populations for many years.
“In the last 12 months new, robust evidence has shown that populations have declined precipitously, chiefly in areas managed for driven grouse shooting. This reclassification to unfavourable status demands urgent action.
“The recognition from Scottish Government’s own advisors that the mountain hare population is now unfavourable means that increased protection of this iconic species is needed. Self-regulation and claimed ‘voluntary restraint’ from culling by the industry has been nothing short of a pitiful failure.
“We urge the Scottish Government to take action where the industry has not and to urgently increase the protection of mountain hares in Scotland until their status is secured.”
Mountain hares are protected against unsustainable killing by the European Union’s Habitats Directive. However, they are routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors. The species is Britain’s only native hare and plays a vital part of the ecosystem of Scotland’s uplands and moorlands, including acting as an important source of prey for golden eagles.
In addition to moorland management, the impacts of agriculture and habitat loss were identified as lesser causes of the decline in mountain hare numbers.
Greens MSP Alison Johnstone said: “This alarming report show just how urgently we need to protect mountain hares, an iconic animal and an important part of the food chain. This killing must stop.
“Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham told us she’d act to stop this brutal slaughter if she had the evidence. She has it, let’s see action now.
“We also need urgent action to stop the senseless blood sport of grouse shooting. Hares are killed only so a few enthusiasts can then go on to kill grouse.
“The Scottish Government needs to get off the fence and call time on this senseless circle of slaughter.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have commissioned a report on aspects of grouse moor management, including mountain hare culling, from an independent group led by Professor Alan Werritty.
"We expect this report in the next few weeks and we will consider any recommended actions, alongside all other evidence, in deciding whether further regulation is required.”