SCOTLAND'S official tourist agency is coming under mounting pressure to cease promoting the recreational shooting of thousands of mountain hares.

Animal welfare campaigners are calling on VisitScotland to stop backing businesses that profit from organising hare shooting holidays. Encouraging the sport undermines Scotland’s reputation as an animal-loving country, they say.

VisitScotland has removed a photo of shooters standing behind a long line of dead hares from its website. But it says it can’t discriminate against the country sports industry, which is worth over £155 million a year.

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The Edinburgh animal charity, OneKind, is launching a petition to try and persuade VisitScotland to withdraw its support for hare-shooting firms. “Visit Scotland,” it says, “but don’t kill our hares”.

According to the charity, tens of thousands of hares are shot every year in the Scottish countryside. Some 40 per cent are killed for sport, with others culled by gamekeepers on sporting estates to help preserve red grouse for shooting.

OneKind has identified 25 companies that advertise hare shooting online, some of which have been assisted by VisitScotland. The tourism agency has given two grants worth a total of £36,675 to the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group, and currently hosts a webpage for Scottish Borders Field Sports.

“This is not the kind of tourism we should be encouraging, let alone using public resources and funds to promote,” said OneKind director, Harry Huyton.

“We believe that recreational hare killing, particularly as part of driven hunts, which involve killing hundreds of hares at a time, is in direct conflict with the Scottish Government’s commitments to the conservation and welfare of mountain hares.”

He added: “VisitScotland may have a duty to be impartial in who it promotes, but that doesn’t mean they should support an activity that so clearly undermines our reputation as an animal-loving country that celebrates its natural heritage.”

Complaints about a photo used by a hare-hunting company on VisitScotland’s website resulted in it being removed in August. The photo from Italian firm, Mirani Hunting, showed shooters displaying their kills.

VisitScotland said it had removed the “offending” image from its online business listing because it breached website terms and conditions, and the company had then completely withdrawn its listing. Mirani Hunting did not respond to requests to comment.

OneKind’s campaign has been backed by other animal groups. “The killing of any animal for sport should not be permitted in the 21st century and the mountain hare in particular has a great need for protection,” said Jane Russ, chair of the Hare Preservation Trust.

Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, condemned killing hares for fun as “reprehensible and repugnant”.

VisitScotland accepted that country sports were sensitive. “However, as a public body we have to remain impartial and we cannot discriminate against one sector of the tourism industry,” said a spokeswoman.

“Those with an interest in field sports also take part in other activities and sports whilst visiting Scotland – spending on retail, golfing and eating out, to name but a few. This makes the sector extremely valuable.”

She added: “We do try to take care when selecting relevant marketing materials, particularly those that include overt imagery that might cause offence. If a business listing does not adhere to these terms and conditions we will ask offending images to be removed.”

According to the Scottish Government, “large-scale” culling of mountain hares could not be justified. “If evidence emerges that indicates levels of culling of hares that could cause significant population declines, locally or nationally, the Scottish Government will consider bringing forward further measures to protect them,” said a spokesperson.

The Countryside Alliance for Scotland claimed mountain hare populations were often at their highest where moorlands were being managed for driven grouse shooting. “We would suggest that these be the areas on which the organisations and charities purporting to “save the mountain hare” concentrate their efforts,” said director for Scotland, Jamie Stewart. “I am certain that many of our gamekeepers would be more than willing to help them in their efforts.”