The realities of managing land in Scotland stimulates strong opinions, none more so when it comes to the care of our native mountain hare.

Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone is proposing a private member’s bill tat Holyrood to introduce new controls to protect hares and also foxes.

On the face of it, this would be an attractive proposition to some people. The reality, however, is that there is already a raft of measures in place to achieve these aims.

Control of mountain hare populations is subject to legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and an EU Habitats Directive, which requires their number to be maintained at a “favourable conservation status”.

In justifying the need for the bill, Ms Johnstone points to an RSPB-backed study which claimed mountain hare numbers were less than one per cent of the levels found in 1954. However, this ignores the latest science for counting hares which has been rolled out following a three-year project commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Published earlier this year, new Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust research rebuts the post-1954 study and estimates the current mountain hare population to be 135,000 – a figure which constantly renews as mammals breed each year.

Importantly, it also found that the management of driven grouse moors appeared to provide a net benefit to mountain hare populations, even after population control was factored in. But Ms Johnstone does not sound too keen on grouse shooting, despite the very substantial contribution it makes to rural communities.

In the Highland region, for example, the density of mountain hares on driven grouse moors was 35 times higher than on moors not managed for shooting. In large parts of Scotland – where there are no grouse moors – mountain hares are completely absent from the landscape.

We know their numbers are healthy on grouse moors because they are protected from fox predation, and heather – a key part of their diet – is flourishing.

However, this also leads to the population having to be sustainably controlled, in a similar way to the 100,000 deer that are culled in Scotland each year to stop grazing damage.

It is incumbent, therefore, that all sides of the debate put forward their case on the basis of the ongoing work and research. This will help to ensure that mountain hares can be found across Scotland – not just on managed moorland. 

David Johnstone is 
director of Scottish Land 
and Estates.