PROTECTIONS for mountain hares have come into force from today, in what campaigners are calling National Mountain Hare Day.

The new regulations mean that it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares without a licence. They were passed after pressure from Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone to accept the licensing as part of the new wildlife legislation.

Johnstone said: “Today is an important moment for all those who campaigned for years to end the indiscriminate mass slaughter of mountain hares on Scotland’s grouse moors. These new protections come as a direct result of my amendment to wildlife laws last year, which forced the Government to act after years of delay.

“Overwhelming public support for action ensured that Parliament supported this change, and I would like to express my gratitude in particular to the tens of thousands of campaigners who backed my amendment and helped push it over the line.

“Now that mountain hares are a protected species, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to protect them. We will be keeping a close eye on them and will challenge any move that suggests they are not fulfilling this duty.

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“Scotland is in a nature emergency, with one in nine species at threat. The progress we are seeing today is important but we need to do so much more. The Scottish Greens are committed to fighting for Scotland’s nature, ending the persecution of our wildlife and restoring Scotland’s unique and beautiful natural environment.”

Leading animal welfare charity, OneKind, has welcomed the introduction of legal protection.

Director Bob Elliot said: “We are delighted that the day has come when mountain hares have become a protected species and where the mass scale killings of this beautiful animal are put to an end.

“We have campaigned for four years for an end to these culls and so today really does feel like a huge triumph. A triumph not just for ourselves, but also for our passionate supporters and all those who campaigned tirelessly for mountain hares.

“There has been a great deal of support for making mountain hares a protected species and efforts from animal welfare organisations, such as OneKind, conservation organisations and passionate individuals made this happen.

“In particular, Alison Johnstone MSP deserves special recognition for her commitment to her role as the Scottish Parliament’s hare champion.

“We are very grateful that she lodged the amendment that is responsible for mountain hares’ new status as a protected species.”

Meanwhile, gamekeepers plan to speak to the group behind the Langholm community buy-out to discuss a scheme to return the mountain hare to its former moorland home.

The Langholm Initiative completed south Scotland’s biggest-ever community buy-out when it purchased 5200 acres of Langholm Moor, Tarras Valley and associated properties from Buccleuch Estates for £3.8 million last October.

Legal paperwork was due for completion on January 31, with the group seeking to create Tarras Valley Nature Reserve – which they hope will become a haven for nature.

Now, gamekeepers in neighbouring upland areas are hoping to set up a meeting with the group to discuss the possibility of hares being reintroduced to the moor in order to kick-start a regional recovery.

The mountain hare was a common sight at Langholm when the moor was managed for red grouse shooting, but became extinct at the site around the early 2000s after gamekeepers lost their jobs following the Joint Raptor Study.

Despite the hares’ conservation status now being classed as “unfavourable”, driven grouse moors in nearby Lammermuir and Moorfoot hills boast a healthy surplus. The plan is to discuss the potential for them to act as “donors” to help re-boot the species.

“Mountain hares were common when gamekeepers worked at Langholm. There is potential for a win-win here, for returning lost species, for reserve visitors to enjoy and for getting hares back to favourable conservation status in Scotland,” said Alex Hogg, chair of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

“There is a willingness for gamekeepers to discuss this with the community group and we hope a virtual meeting can take place after they get their feet under the desk.

“If all the tests can be met, we could see mountain hares back at Langholm. That would be a special achievement.”