BIODIVERSITY minister Lorna Slater has welcomed an increase in reported sightings of Scotland’s “iconic” mountain hares since the species gained protected status last year.

A report released this week details the findings of a survey jointly overseen by NatureScot, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Mammal Society, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the James Hutton Institute, during which “volunteer citizen scientists” used the free smartphone app "Mammal Mapper" to record sightings of the animals.

Mountain hares are Scotland’s only native hare, which were regularly killed during unrestricted open seasons until they became a protected species in March 2021 after intense lobbying from the Scottish Greens and Scottish animal welfare organisations, making it illegal to intentionally kill them without a licence.

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Mammal Society science officer Frazer Coomber said: “Since the inception of this citizen science survey we have seen a substantial increase in the number of mountain hare sightings reported through the app and these records are continuing to be submitted – a big thank you to all those who submit their sightings.”

NatureScot mammal specialist Rob Raynor added: “Improving the information we have on mountain hare populations is crucial so that we can protect and conserve this much-loved species, so we’re hugely grateful to all those who took part. We hope that many more volunteers will sign up to get involved this year to help this project go from strength to strength.”

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Speaking to the National, Lorna Slater commented: “Mountain hares are an iconic Scottish species and I’m really pleased to see this substantial increase in the reported sightings. Protecting Scotland’s wild animals in their natural environment is a key priority and last year the Scottish Government made it illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares at any time without a licence.”