GAMEKEEPERS furious with moves to protect Scotland's mountain hares have suggested they will set up a new political party to "ensure the working countryside is represented better".

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said the decision to ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares was a "grave mistake".

MSPs voted to make mountain hares a protected species by 60 votes to 19 following an amendment to the Animals and Wildlife Bill by Green MSP Alison Johnstone.

A study previously found mountain hare numbers have declined considerably since the 1950s, with figures suggesting 26,000 are killed every year.

But Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said a lack of control will harm the species.

He said: “This is a bad law, made by people it will not impact upon.

“There will be no satisfaction in turning around in a few years and saying: ‘we told you so’ but, certainly, this is an important date in the demise of another iconic species, killed by political trade-offs and emotive campaigns.

“The views of the rural working people of the land have been ignored, here. The system has failed them.

"We have been in discussions for some months about a party for rural Scotland and the possibility of fielding candidates in list seats.

“Our members feel this whole process and the lack of scrutiny has been lamentable and we now need to consider all options to ensure the working countryside is represented better in Scotland today.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, said the changes "will not help Scotland's wildlife, which is the prime concern of gamekeepers and land managers".

She said: "Mountain hares are thriving on Scotland's moors and their fate will not be improved by this vote.

"There is clear evidence that the control of hares helps combat tick and Lyme disease and protect plants and young trees.

"Balanced wildlife management is key to meeting Scottish government targets on biodiversity and tree planting.

"It was disappointing that this seems to have been disregarded by so many at Holyrood."
However animal campaigners at OneKind said the move would effectively end "mass-scale mountain hare killings".

Director Bob Elliot said: "This is a triumph for one of the Scottish Parliament's hare champions, Alison Johnstone, and also underlines the willingness of a minister to listen to public opinion on the status of this cherished species.

"As soon as it became possible for Alison to lodge her amendment, the upsurge in public support has been momentous.

"OneKind is delighted to have been part of this and to see a successful conclusion to one of our most heartfelt campaigns to end the mass-scale mountain hare killings."

More than 22,000 people signed a petition in support of the change.

Under the new Animals and Wildlife Bill, the worst animal cruelty offences will also be punishable by up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

Ms Johnstone said she was "delighted the Scottish Government has finally given into pressure to protect this iconic native species".

She added: "This has come about because of the overwhelming public support for my amendment, for which I am very grateful.

“The sheer volume of interventions from those defending our wildlife was impossible to ignore, and saw off pressure from the grouse-shooting lobby, who once again attempted to undermine the evidence by claiming that killing these animals also protects them."

Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon said the new legislation would help protect animals.

She said: “This Bill is an important milestone in Scotland’s long tradition of protecting our animals and wildlife.

“The increased maximum available penalties reflect the seriousness of some of the very cruel crimes seen against domestic and wild animals - although these cases are thankfully rare."

She added: “The Bill also provides innovative new powers, described as ‘transformative’ by the Scottish SPCA, that will allow animal welfare enforcement agencies to quickly rehome animals in their care.”