A NEW plan has been hatched to return the iconic mountain hare to its former Scottish moorland home.

Ecologists say numbers have been in decline since the 1950s with Scottish government figures suggesting about 26,000 hares are killed every year.

Now gamekeepers are to have talks with a group behind the Langholm community buy-out with a plan to reintroduce hares to the moor to kick-start a recovery.

Buccleuch Estates said in November that it would be selling just over 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres) of Langholm Moor for £3.8m to the local community, which plans to create a leading new nature reserve and community regeneration project.

The deal, the largest ever community buyout in the south of Scotland, follows months of fundraising by the Langholm Initiative, which only succeeded with hours to spare before the deadline of 31 October.

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The buyout involves about half the area of 4,200 hectares the campaigners had hoped to buy, at the substantial price of £6m.

Legal paperwork was due for completion on January 31st, with the group seeking to create Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, which they hope will become a haven for nature.

Now gamekeepers in neighbouring upland areas hope to set up a meeting with the group to discuss the possibility of hares being reintroduced to the moor to kick-start a regional recovery.

The mountain or ‘blue’ hare is Scotland’s only native hare and was a common sight at Langholm when the moor was managed for red grouse shooting.

Now fully protected, the native hares became extinct at the site around the early 2000s.

According to the the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, despite mountain hares’ conservation status now being classed as ‘unfavourable’, driven grouse moors in nearby Lammermuir and Moorfoot hills boast what they call a "healthy surplus".


Their plan is to discuss the potential for them to act as "donors" to help re-boot the species where they were once a cherished part of the moorland fauna.

Hares would be "live trapped" on grouse moors to be relocated to moorlands with appropriate habitat, in a bid to re-develop a breeding population.

Similar relcoations have allowed beavers to be captured and moved from parts of Scotland where they cause significant damage to farmland.

This has allowed other regions to benefit, also reducing numbers of problem animals potentially culled under licence.

“Mountain hares were common when gamekeepers worked at Langholm. There is potential for a win-win, here, for returning lost species, for Reserve visitors to enjoy and for getting hares back to favourable conservation status in Scotland,” said Alex Hogg, chairman of the SGA.

READ MORE: Mountain hare 'saved by grouse moor'

“There is a willingness for gamekeepers to discuss this with the community group and we hope a virtual meeting can take place after they get their feet under the desk.

“If all the tests can be met, we could see mountain hares back at Langholm. That would be a special achievement. If they were to re-establish successfully, it could also have a longer term benefit as a food source for the golden eagles which have been reintroduced to the south of Scotland.”

Last year, MSPs voted to ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares and make them a protected species.

Concerns had been growing about the practice but gamekeepers insisted Holyrood made a "grave mistake" and that the move was bad for land management.

The ban is an addition to a new law to increase sentencing for wildlife crime.

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

From March 1 it will be illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares at any time across Scotland unless a licence is obtained.

Previously a licence would be required during the closed season. This will now be the case throughout the whole year.

The new licensing arrangement will be overseen by NatureScot, with licences issued only under certain circumstances, such as concerns for public health or protection of crops and timber.

“Now that the new laws to protect mountain hares are passed, there is no longer an ability to control hare populations on our moors,” said Mark Ewart, co-ordinator of The Southern Uplands Moorland Group.

“It makes sense to use surplus populations from grouse moors to try to re-establish the species elsewhere, or to build up fragmented populations so they become more resilient.

“Research points to there being not enough recruitment, in areas away from grouse moors, to sustain the species in the longer run. Rather than watch them die on our moors from disease, which is pointless, it makes sense to use the surplus to help the species recover.”

Donald Fraser, NatureScot's head of wildlife management, added: "Mountain hares – our only native hare – are an important and valued species in the Scottish hills.

"This increased protection will help ensure healthy populations of mountain hares can be found and enjoyed in the mountains, while giving some recourse when there is a need to prevent damage being caused to saplings or sensitive habitats. We are also working with several partner organisations to continue to improve our understanding of mountain hare populations across Scotland, along with other work to support their conservation status."