The first of March has always been associated with the hare, but this year was particularly special for Scotland’s mountain hares, one of our iconic native species. Mountain hares have been in decline. They were regularly killed in unrestricted open seasons in Scotland, but new regulations mean that this ends now. Mountain hares are Scotland’s latest protected species, and it is now illegal to intentionally kill them without a license.
This is because last year during important new wildlife legislation I forced the Scottish Government’s hand to make mountain hares a protected species after years of delay. As well as the hard work of groups like OneKind, the League Against Cruel Sports, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, overwhelming public support for action ensured that Parliament supported this change, and my gratitude goes out in particular to the tens of thousands of campaigners who backed my amendment and helped push it over the line. We had 24,000 people back my amendment in just a few days.
It was quite a journey to get there though. In 2016, I joined a mass rally of folk outside the Parliament building. Young and old, they came from across the country to rally outside because they felt compelled to act after they had learned about the indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of mountain hares in Scotland.
Having been invited by the organisers to speak at the rally, I committed to campaign until that slaughter stopped. The Environment Secretary also addressed the rally and said that she, too, would act, but only if she had sufficient evidence.
Then in March 2018, OneKind, the League Against Cruel Sports and Lush released a video, narrated by the broadcaster Chris Packham, that exposed the shocking reality of Scotland’s mountain hare culls. The video aired on national television. Sadly, it provided evidence aplenty. It showed an armed squad of quad bikers wearing balaclavas driving across the Cairngorms National Park. What was their aim? Apparently, it was to shoot as many hares as they could. We saw hares suffering from injury- one was caught by a dog in a drawn-out struggle. I asked the First Minister for her views on that obscene activity and she agreed that such slaughter is unacceptable.
Then a major academic paper that was published in August 2018 found that mountain hare populations on some grouse moors in the north-east Highlands had declined by 99 percent since the 1950s.
A year later, the Scottish Government reported to the European Union that mountain hares’ conservation status is ‘unfavourable’.
It was frustrating then, that we had to wait until 2020 to see some action, and until this year for the protections came into place, giving shooters one more open season.
In the end though, people power won, and this story says much about what we will have to do if we are to save Scotland’s wildlife. Because, be in no doubt that Scotland is in a nature emergency, with one in nine species at threat. The progress we are seeing this last week is important but we need to do so much more. I’m determined we keep up the struggle to protect Scotland’s nature, ending the persecution of our wildlife and restoring Scotland’s unique and beautiful natural environment.