PLANS to end the “routine slaughter” of mountain hares and foxes are to be unveiled. Green MSP Alison Johnstone’s Member’s Bill is aimed at closing legal “loopholes” that permit unlimited numbers of native mountain hares and brown hares to be killed at certain times of the year and have failed to prevent fox hunting.

Today, Johnstone, the co-leader of the Scottish Green Party, is launching a public consultation on the bill which will run until mid-September.

The draft bill was drawn up after footage was released this spring showing mass culls of mountain hares on grouse moors in the Cairngorms. The Scottish Greens claim 25,000 were killed in one year – up to 14% of the population.

“Large-scale culling of mountain hares is routine on many sporting estates in the belief that it protects grouse against viruses spread by ticks but there is no scientific evidence to back that up,” said Johnstone.

“We need to ban these culls. The voluntary restraint urged by the Government’s nature agency has proved inadequate.”

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Johnstone’s bill also proposes tightening the existing laws on fox hunting. The use of packs of dogs to hunt down and catch foxes is banned but the use of dogs to flush foxes into the open is still allowed – a practice that animal rights activists claim makes the ban hard to police.

“Foxes and hares are iconic species that are widely celebrated in popular culture and valued by rural and urban Scots alike,” said Johnstone.

“They deserve our compassion and respect, yet they are routinely slaughtered across the country in huge numbers.”

The consultation document on the bill states: “Wild mammals belong to no-one while they are free-living but UK legislation has long held that animal welfare is a public good and that animals should therefore be protected in the public interest.

“The aim of the proposed bill is, therefore, to improve the protection of some wild mammals in Scotland, specifically by ending the use of dogs in the hunting of wild mammals and improving the protection of certain wild mammals.”

The proposals have the support of OneKind, the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, and the International Federation for Animal Welfare who feel current legislation does not go far enough.

Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: "We wholeheartedly welcome Alison Johnstone's Bill and the implications this would have on fox hunting in Scotland.

"The League has been campaigning for many years for the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 to be strengthened to really ban hunting.

"This Bill will compliment legislative commitments from the Scottish Government as well as going further to afford improved protection to other wild species, including mountain hares."

Bob Elliot, director of OneKind, said: "From the introduction of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act, OneKind fieldworkers have seen breaches, such as the flushing of foxes that were not immediately shot, and prolonged pursuit of exhausted animals.

"The hunts have been playing with the legislation and that has to end.

"OneKind wants to see full recognition under Scottish law that both wild and domestic animals are sentient, and that the unquestioning infliction of suffering in the name of 'pest' control and sport simply cannot continue."

However landowners claim a ban on culling mountain hares is not borne out by research.

“Less than two years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage – the Government’s own nature body – said that they did not consider that a moratorium on mountain hare culling was justified at that time, with evidence of a national decline in numbers not conclusive,” said Scottish Land & Estates chair David Johnstone.

“Even since 2017, substantial new research has been undertaken to further our collective knowledge about mountain hare populations, none of which supports fresh calls for a ban.

“Control of mountain hare populations is already 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’.

“The current population is estimated at 135,000 and is constantly renewing.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “We hope to engage with Scottish Government on its intentions, particularly any licensing scheme to allow vital pest control.”