A ROW has broken out over hare culling on Scotland's hills, with gamekeepers complaining that they are caught between rules requiring them to protect habitats from overgrazing, and the vociferous attentions of pressure groups seeking to undermine grouse shooting estates.

Covertly filmed footage of hares being culled was passed by two such groups – OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports – to the BBC, which subsequently broadcast it with the implication that the keepers had been caught doing something wrong.

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association responded: “In two area shown in the film, the habitats are protected. Land managers were notified by Scottish Natural Heritage that one was in unfavourable condition. There are no deer on that holding. The over-grazing damage was caused solely by mountain hares.

"Another area in the film is designated for dwarf woodland and there is a duty to reduce grazing pressure on the habitat," said the SGA. "The other holding has significant areas of forestry as well as moorland. Both of these habitats require grazing assessment and management.

“If SNH and Scottish Government want protected sites to be in favourable condition then refuse to back the management actions to achieve that, then estates should stop being thrown to the mercy of animal rights campaigners with secret cameras and SNH should carry out the management themselves," said the gamekeepers.

"We are not far from the stage now where people will not want to manage deer and hare populations because they cannot operate without being covertly filmed. Thousands of deer are killed annually, under Government instruction and a potential £40,000 fine for non-compliance, to protect designated sites, habitats, crops and trees. Killing thousands of deer then leaving thousands of hares to feed on that same habitat defies any sense or logic. The sad thing is that there are people within public agencies who know that very well but seem ready to let those tasked with carrying out the task, take the flak," said the SGA.

“The issue has become a Trojan horse for those seeking to end grouse shooting. Yet, if filming took place on nature reserves, viewers would see numbers barely able to sustain population viability. That is the true, untold story of mountain hares in Scotland and it is time it was told."

Scottish Moorland Group director Tim Baynes added: “Mountain hare management is not only legal but necessary and is carried out within a regulatory framework of closed seasons and licences administered by SNH. It has many parallels with management of deer where large numbers will damage habitats, trees and also spread tick, so they are controlled according to local populations densities. As with deer, shooting is the only really effective method of controlling numbers and the carcasses then go into the food chain.

“There is no threat to mountain hare populations as some activists pretend. Culls on open moorland typically reduce the population by 5-14%. Grouse moors, due to the way they are managed, are the best reservoirs and producers of mountain hares anywhere in the country. However, the flip side of that is that they then need to be managed periodically as the population climbs to prevent overgrazing and disease problems.

“The results of a three-year study conducted by SNH, the James Hutton Institute and GWCT, looking at the best methods of counting mountain hares was published in late-January and land managers are now taking this forward in population surveys being carried out across the country," he added.