GAMEKEEPERS have pointed out that recent out-of-season culls of mountain hares have been done to protect newly planted forestry, not grouse moors.

The culling of mountain hares has become a hot topic, with animal rights groups accusing grouse estates of targetting the species to minimise the spread of tick. Activists are now calling for a ban on the killing of mountain hares and are set to protest outside Holyrood next week.

But via a Freedom Of Information request to Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association this week revealed that of the 26 applications made to SNH for out of season licences up to March 2016, only two were related to grouse moor management – and both of those were refused. All the rest were to protect forestry.

Back in 2012, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act introduced a closed season to protect the mountain or ‘blue’ hare between March 1 and July 31, unless under special licenses granted in ‘exceptional circumstances’ from SNH.

SGA's investigation revealed that since then, the cull licences approved by SNH have been signed off to prevent hares causing damage to young trees. On top of the numbers culled to prevent grazing and browsing damage during the open season, applications for an additional 575 hares to be culled in the close season were approved in 2014 with a further 700 in 2015.

Up to the end of March 2016, SNH had already granted licences for 838 hares to be controlled outside of the legal seasons on five sites in order to protect new saplings.

“Grants for new forestry are given on the basis that new stock must be protected from damage and we know mountain hare numbers in some areas of new woodland are having to be kept right down, all year round," said SGA chairman Alex Hogg.

“In the past 25 years in the Cairngorms National Park, there has been approximately a quarter of a million acres given over to land use change to enable afforestation. With further ambitious targets for new tree planting schemes in Scotland, the use of out of season licences to suppress the numbers to enable tree establishment is likely to become the norm.”

SGA committee member Ronnie Kippen, a gamekeeper in Perthshire for 45 years, believes activists should be mindful of the consequences of their wishes: “In the 80s, before mechanised snow vehicles, there were two consecutive years where we couldn’t control the hare numbers because of heavy snow. In the spring of year three, they died in their thousands, all over the hill, from intestinal parasites and it took five or six years for their numbers to come back again.

“If you don’t manage the population each year, you are looking at serious damage to habitats and dead hares lying everywhere rather than going back into the food chain. People might have good intentions but that is what will happen.”