A PETITION calling on the Scottish Government to amend legislation so that mountain hares can be killed in the practice of Falconry has been lodged to Parliament.

New protections for mountain hares came into force from March 1 2021, in what campaigners have hailed as 'National Mountain Hare Day'.

The regulations mean that it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares without a licence, passed after pressure from Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone to accept the licensing as part of the new wildlife legislation.

However, professional falconer Barry Blyther, 54, has called the legislation “fatally flawed” and not fit for purpose - and is now asking for a small, yet crucial, adjustment.

Barry Blyther, professional falconer.ELITE FALCONRY

According to Mr Blyther, the addition of a mere six words could assure the well-being of thousands of birds of prey, community members, and even the hares themselves.

Those six words - “except for the purposes of Falconry” - Mr Blyther believes could help “preserve the dreams of tens of thousands of falconers" by protecting Scottish falconry and setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

In 1998, Mr Blyther set up the birds of prey centre 'Elite Falconry' in Fife, which now provides falconry services and activities across the country.

READ MORE: Mountain hares to be given greater protection in Scotland from March

The centre also runs a self-funded breeding for conservation programme, which saw the very first captive breeding success with a species of eagles threatened in the wild.

“It is conservation both of species of raptors, and the wild, free living species of all types of mammals and birds in our countryside that motivates us to work hard and move forward”, he told The Herald.

However, Mr Blyther fears the Scottish Government’s move to pass legislation in Scotland poses an intolerable animal welfare issue in and of itself.

Barry Blyther, professional falconer.ELITE FALCONRY

“It is my belief that the government did not foresee the wider animal welfare implications of this horribly rushed, unscrutinised and under researched piece of legislation", he explained.

"However, criminalising an activity that provides massive conservation benefits, is utterly sustainable and in fact strengthens the population of hares in Scotland, and sees falconers in Scotland working to the very highest standards in the world is exactly what this piece of legislation has done.”

He also believes it will result in lost revenue for upland communities and create a population surplus of mountain hares - that subsequently risk damaging habitat and forestry.

READ MORE: Plan to return 'extinct' mountain hares to their former Scottish moorland home

He said: “The biggest losers from the legislation will be the hares the bill was poorly designed to protect.

"Next will be birds used for falconry and the falconers that keep them", he added, closely followed by the local communities that enjoy the revenue brought to upland communities during winter.

Mr Blyther cited the ‘Five Freedoms’ of animal welfare adopted by professional groups including vets and the RSPCA in 1993, one of which is "the freedom to express normal behaviour for the animal".

Barry Blyther, professional falconer.ELITE FALCONRY

Mr Blyther argued that if falconers cannot provide their birds with the freedom to fly in an environment that suits the species, nor allow the creatures to hunt when motivated by appetite, they would be “contravening their obligation of animal welfare.”

He explained: “Under new legislation, if we do so and our eagle catches a hare, we will be immediately criminalised under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981”.

“Falconry is a 4,000 year old pastime that has been practiced the world over by all sections of society and has recently been adopted by UNESCO onto the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“What should be done with these long lived, single minded animals if one law says we must give them their freedom to express normal behaviour, but another says it is illegal for us to do so?”

'Survival of the fittest'

Birds of prey such as the Golden Eagle, as obligate carnivores, have evolved over many millennia “cheek by jowel beside the mountain hare”, Mr Blyther added.

“By nature, a predator will always pick out the path of least resistance to a meal.

“The hunting eagle will seek less able individuals, and in doing so assures that the very fittest will survive, either by evading the predator with their superior athleticism, or because the eagle passes over them to predate upon the less able animals.

“Doing so assures that come spring, the strongest animals go on to survive and breed, passing the best genetics to the next generation, by default pushing that evolution along through survival of the fittest and strongest.

Barry Blyther, professional falconer.ELITE FALCONRY

“The removal of the weaker individuals removes poorer genetics from the pool, and best of all, limits the risk of the sick spreading disease to an otherwise strong, healthy population.”

The petition, which closes on March 24, requests an amendment to the legislation, exempting the taking of mountain hares in the practice of Falconry.

A statement attached to the petition reads: "The purpose of the legislation was to prevent mass culls of tens of thousands of hares in Scotland each year on organised shoots. 

"It seems unfair and unjustifiable that a piece of legislation brought into law to address a totally different issue, has the side effect of making the sustainable and legitimate branch of falconry illegal.

READ MORE: Gamekeepers float new political party amid anger over mountain hare protections

"Unaddressed, this legislation will condemn hundreds upon hundreds of trained birds of prey to enclosed aviaries for the rest of their long lives".

However, animal campaigners at OneKind called the new legislation a "triumph".

Director Bob Elliot said: "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."

Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon said the new legislation would help protect animals, callin it "an important milestone in Scotland’s long tradition of protecting our animals and wildlife."

You can find out more about the petition to exempt the taking of hares for the purposes of Falconry on the Scottish Parliament website, here.