Over 11,000 people have pledged support over the weekend for moves to protect mountain hares from wholesale slaughter on the country’s grouse moors.

Hares can be shot without a licence from August to February and an estimated 26,000 mountain hares are estimated to have been killed on grouse moors every year.

Shooting estates claim the culls protect red grouse from tic-borne disease and to stop over-grazing. But the animals, which are Britain's only native hare and have been here since the last ice age, are also said to be an important source of prey for the golden eagle, one of Scotland's most iconic birds.

Last year data published by the EU on the condition of protected species and habitats in Scotland suggests the country’s mountain hare populations have experienced a major decline.

Ss a result, the status of the mountain hare has been downgraded to ‘unfavourable’, meaning that special conservation action needs to be undertaken to arrest further declines and aid their recovery.

Now an amendment to the Wildlife Bill aims to protect mountain hares and a petition of support has gathered 11,147 in the space of just three days.

READ MORE: Mountain hare 'saved by grouse moor'

The amendment would make mountain hares a protected species, effectively ending recreational killing and mass killing on grouse moors.

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone who has put forward the amendment said: “The level of public support for my amendment is hugely encouraging. Mountain hares are iconic animals, native to the Highlands. They deserve the highest level of protection we can offer but current laws mean that persecution and mass killings are rife. Populations have crashed and their conservation status was downgraded last year. This is our chance to protect this species for future generations.


“The Parliament must listen and vote to end the killing on Wednesday."

“The Scottish Greens have significantly raised the ambition of this bill, with amendments to give greater protection for seals, whales, dolphins, mountain hares, beavers and badgers, as well as reverse the damaging decision to relax laws on severing puppy’s tails. I hope MSPs can meet that ambition on Wednesday, to protect Scotland’s iconic animals.”

RSPB Scotland said last year that it wasa “extremely concerned” about the hare culling and bosses have demanded urgent action.

The organisation has lobbied for many years to improve the protection for mountain hares in Scotland, calling for a moratorium in 2015 on unregulated culling.

Since then, new evidence has shown the species has declined by more than 90% in some sites managed for driven grouse shooting, in spite of claims from the shooting industry that numbers remain healthy.

In response to the amendment, Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg described the amendment as "political opportunism".

“Since seasons were brought in for mountain hares, all licences granted for culling have been given out by Scottish Natural Heritage to protect young trees.

"As the Green Party demands more tree planting to counter climate change, it will be interesting to see how Alison Johnstone intends to protect saplings from mountain hares.

"She has certainly made a very forceful and compelling case for fenced forestry schemes running across upland Scotland.

“Mountain hares are controlled, in season, to protect trees and fragile habitats, to prevent disease and to manage tick populations which also have implications for human health.

“A great deal has been done by gamekeepers and estates to put into place new scientifically tested counting methodologies so that control measures are proportionate. That is the way forward and very few, if any, conservation bodies have followed suit which is perhaps telling. Complete protection will not address the key issue facing the species in Scotland today: their spiralling decline away from grouse moors which have maintained their habitats for centuries while still managing population levels.”

Meanwhile new recommendations have been made to build a national approach to counting mountain hares across Scotland.

In November, gamekeepers and landowner groups pointed out that more mountain hares had been counted on moorland managed for grouse shoots than unmanaged moorland.

The groups said initial results suggested there were tens of thousands of hares on areas of managed moorland.

In a joint statement, the groups said the first set of data recorded under the new system showed an average of 13.7 mountain hares encountered per kilometre at 27 surveyed sites.

They said Scotland had approximately 135,000 hares, with most of them found on grouse moors.

On managed grouse moors, mountain hare populations were "up to 35 times higher" than on unmanaged moors, they added.