Tuesday, 16 June 2020

OPEN LETTER: RURAL WORKER VOTES CAN'T BE TRADE-OFFS WHEN BILLS ARE PASSED

Please see below an Open Letter  which has been sent to MSPs by Alex Hogg, Chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, ahead of the final debate and vote on the Animals and Wildlife Bill at Holyrood tomorrow (Wednesday).

The long-standing SGA Chairman, a gamekeeper for over 40 years, argues that the way this Bill has been handled will reduce faith in Scottish Parliament processes, that rural working peoples' interests are being traded for political gain and that voting in favour of giving full protection for the mountain hare will be a grave mistake for the conservation status of the iconic species.

Dear MSP, 

I have been a gamekeeper for over 40 years of my life. I have been attending Parliament, in my capacity as Chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association since its inception.

As stakeholders, we have been involved in many Bills. We endeavour to give MSPs of all persuasions an insight into the countryside from the perspective of the working person and pass on our practical knowledge.

I am not given to writing in this way but I have found myself at a loss as to why, in the midst of a pandemic, we are in the situation where major decisions are about to be taken on key issues within 7 days from them being tabled.

I wrote to the Presiding Officer myself in order to try and understand why decisions which will impact on the daily lives of our members are being taken at Stage 3 of the Animals and Wildlife Bill. Big amendments on contentious topics such as mountain hare protection, beaver licensing and tail shortening (again) were only tabled on deadline day last week.

They will be debated for some minutes, along with a raft of other things, and will be passed one way or the other- things which will affect human beings’ lives and I think there is a duty of responsibility for all MSPs to reflect on that. 

I have real concern that the lead Committee has not even had the opportunity to scrutinise these amendments or take evidence and I am highly fearful this will result in bad law.

No matter how I look at it, and I have tried to take positives, this process has left a tainted view of how the Parliament is working today and I know, from calls I have personally received, that our rural members feel that the system is not working for them.

The mountain hare amendment is an example. There will be members in the house who think  ‘protecting’ mountain hares will be doing the right thing by the species. I can understand that motivation.

However, if this had been given more time, MSPs would have been able to question experts and land managers who know that, in order to retain populations of healthy mountain hares, some population management is both desirable and of benefit.

Today, 80 percent of the hare range is grouse moor. Outside these refuges, afforestation has fragmented their habitat and hares are in decline. 

History has already shown what happens when hares, with good populations, are not managed.

On Langholm Moor, when the gamekeepers were removed because grouse shooting became unviable, the mountain hare population crashed. It never recovered. At Langholm the mountain hare is today locally extinct through lack of management.

When hares are not managed on these upland moors, numbers build for a period then the hares die off. Mountain hares are incredibly susceptible to gut worms. When the ground becomes saturated with hares, the worm larva in the heather is ingested and disease spreads through the population with fatal consequences.

Unlike taking a proportion of the hares when they are in good health, disease related die-off means the population can take up to 15 years to reach the same level. In some cases, it doesn’t.

So, by protecting the mountain hare- as per this amendment- and foregoing any population management, there is a real danger that this rushed decision will actually worsen the conservation status of the mountain hare within a relatively short period of time rather than improve it. It will do the opposite of what it is intended to do and would not be good law.

One of our committee members, who has been working with hare populations for decades in Highland Perthshire said to me, “during the early 80’s, before we had vehicles capable of traveling in the snow, I could not get to the hill. After three consecutive winters, the population exploded. In the Spring of that year, the hares died in their hundreds. When the snow cleared the dead carcasses of the hares in the peat hags were sometimes 20-30 to each hag.”

I had another on the phone, this time a highly experienced former Edinglassie gamekeeper in Grampian. He said to me, 
“I cannot believe protection will happen. It will not achieve what people think it will.
We had a really big die off of hares in the 90s when no management was carried out. A senior hare scientist was here studying hares at the time and he asked me what I thought it was. I told him I thought it was disease. He tested for that and found I was correct. 
“It is not the Strongyle worm, which red grouse suffer from, but is of the same family. The hare numbers have never actually recovered to the levels of before, from that crash. This is a species that reacts best to the population being regularly kept at a level where disease is not an issue.”

Langholm is a warning of what happens when mountain hares are allowed to build to high density with no management. These personal accounts from other moors build on what we know.

Gamekeepers have been managing hares for over 100 years. Today, on grouse moors, the populations are either stable or increasing (Hesford et al, 2019), all these years later. The highest hare densities in Europe are found here. For being perceived to be doing so badly, it turns out that, scientifically, what we do has been very good for mountain hares. Practiced elsewhere, you would not be seeing declines.

It is a shame the Parliament will not have a proper chance to truly consider the views of the people who have more practical experience of this issue than anyone else in Scotland.

Full legal protection for the mountain hare will also impact the species they share a home with.
As the hare numbers initially rise, they will act as growing blood hosts for tick. 
Tick burdens kill young leverets and also give the adult hares tick borne encephalitis but they also weaken birds such as the Curlew, Britain’s biggest conservation concern, leaving them susceptible to disease and predation. 

The walkers, mountain bikers and ramblers that we want to encourage into the hills for exercise will have to run the gauntlet of more tick during this phase as they take their recreation. A few years ago our community lost a stalker to Lyme Disease. The threats are real and terrifying. These are all factors which ought to have been considered properly in good law making. It seems that won’t happen.

When hare numbers rise then fall through disease, where there is no management, expect golden eagle productivity to fall, too. The hare is the mainstay of the eagle diet. 

There are other ways instead of full legal protection to ensure hare populations are in good order.

Statutory reporting to SNH of counts and bag returns, as is common in Europe, requires no rushed legislation, passed without scrutiny. A General Licence, like that used for certain common species, would also give SNH the data it needs on populations and the option to step in or suspend management if need be. 

Gamekeepers have already been counting hares, using the new and accurate methodology and conversations were already being had with SNH over a national monitoring scheme. These are more in line with the recommendations of the Werritty report. They are sensible and proportionate.

This rushed, opportunistic, amendment, however, is not and, if it passes, truth and science will have been jettisoned along with combined centuries of practical knowledge. It is that which our members will find hardest to swallow and I believe will find difficult to forget. I can understand that feeling and I share it. 

Our members were due to protest at the Parliament in March. They wanted to send a message that interests of rural working people should not be traded so votes could be won elsewhere in the house. That is not the purpose of law making. The events of the past week will only harden that resolve. Had the world not been knocked sideways by Coronavirus, that protest message would have been delivered. It is likely that it has only been delayed.

When SNH classed the mountain hare as unfavourable/inadequate, it was not reflective of the hare’s actual status, it was because SNH did not have the data at the deadline to which they had to legally report to the EU.

All they had was a Watson report which has now been critiqued (Newey et al, 2018) as having used the least reliable method of all methods tested, to count mountain hares.

Since then, 2 published reports have shown no long term change in abundance since the 1960s and that hare densities in the North East are similar to those recorded in the 1950s. 

More papers are to be published within weeks which will show that changes in the hare’s range are NOT related to culls of hares.

In short, the data SNH lacked when reporting to the EU in 2018 about the hare’s status is available now and the reason to propose protection, as per this amendment (concern over hare culls) is technically defunct.

I apologise for the length of this letter but I hope, as a representative of the people of all of Scotland, that you will reflect on it carefully when making decisions regarding rushed legal protections for mountain hares and other late amendments which ought to have been tabled in a way which allows for scrutiny and debate.

Yours sincerely,


Alex Hogg.

Chairman. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association.