GAMEKEEPERS ACCUSED of 'military style' hare culls have sent an open invitation to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to learn about the realities of hare management on their ground.

Last week BBC Scotland aired a film obtained covertly by animal rights campaigners showing a cull underway – and characterising it as illegal and immoral. That broadcast led to the First Minister describing the practices in the film as ‘unacceptable’ during First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood.

The gamekeepers have since suggested that it is wrong for the Government to obligate land managers to control deer populations to protect upland habitats, and then leave high populations of hares to graze down those same habitats.

To back up their case, records showing hares taken compared to population numbers will be made available to the First Minister, with Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham also being invited to the Highlands to see why population control is necessary.

Head gamekeeper for one of the estates concerned, Duncan MacKenzie, said: “We’d really like to be able to show the First Minister around rather than discuss these issues in Edinburgh. I think it would be beneficial for everyone to get an understanding of why the hares need to be managed here.

“We had SNH out a few years ago to see how the hare populations were being controlled. We invited them out recently also, so nothing is being hidden," said Mr MacKenzie. “We have good records of the amount of hares in comparison to the amount we have taken off the hill, covering a number of years, and there are still high numbers of hares on the ground.

“What the footage by the anti grouse-moor campaigners showed was working people being secretly filmed carrying out a legal management activity which is no different to other forms of species management and is well within the laws passed by Scottish Government," he insisted.

“The ironic thing is that those who are seeking the end of grouse management would also be signalling the beginning of the end for the mountain hare in Scotland. Populations are thriving on grouse moors but are struggling badly elsewhere due to predation and loss of their preferred heather habitat and we hope to have the opportunity to explain this in full to the First Minister.”

Responding to the gamekeepers' statement, RSPB Scotland’s James Reynolds retorted: “RSPB Scotland is delighted that the current Scottish Government grouse moor enquiry is addressing the issue of unsustainable mountain hare culls, and undertaking an economic comparison of intensive management versus alternative models; we are sure the First Minister will also wish to give her full support to this initiative by her Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham MSP.

“The notion that the survival of mountain hares is entirely dependent on intensive grouse moor management is of course absolute nonsense," said Mr Reynolds. "Mountain hares existed quite happily in balance with their natural habitat since the last ice age before intensive grouse moor management began in the Victorian era. They will do so again if given the chance to flourish without needless mass culls.”