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26 May 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 1:35pm

It is an ecological evil that hares are slaughtered by landowners seeking to protect their profits

This butchery is perpetrated because the animals are thought to carry a viral disease – but there is no hard evidence to support this theory. 

By John Burnside

A few days ago, during a break in the weather, my son and I went down to our little paddock to throw a basketball around and get some much-needed air. It was still damp, but the sun had come out and the land was all a-glitter around us, the wet branches of the trees shining in the May light. Across the fields, our neighbour’s sheep were calling vaguely, as if wanting to make a point they weren’t quite sure of, but there were no other signs of life until Gil stopped abruptly, gathered up the ball, and pointed to the patch of ground behind me. “Look,” he said. “A hare.”

I turned slowly and, sure enough, there he was, a large adult male, sitting upright, watching us. Who knew how long he had been there before we noticed him, and who knew how much longer he would have lingered, had he not become suddenly aware of our combined attention and, reluctantly, it seemed, loped off to the next curiosity that life had to offer? It was no great event, I suppose – we see hares often on our hill – but I have to say that it gladdened us both, and we went in later as if blessed in some way, just before the rain returned and the fields darkened again.

[See also: In gardening, the pursuit of perfection is fruitless; we should embrace nature’s wonkiness]

It seems to me that the hare is the quintessential Scottish animal. Maybe I think this because hares were sacred to my Celtic forebears, maybe it’s because one of the first poems I learned by heart was Robert Burns’s “On Seeing A Wounded Hare”. Sadly, however, my regard for the hare is not universal – and one of the many ecological evils visited upon my homeland is the slaughter of our curious hare’s upland cousin, the mountain hare, by hirelings of the driven grouse shooting industry.

This slaughter is perpetrated because of a notion that hares carry a viral disease that might affect the game-birds, and, though there is no hard evidence to support this theory, landowners take the view that it is better to be safe with their profits than sorry. It is not only hares that suffer; everything that walks or flies or hunts under cover of night on Scottish moorlands is targeted – all for a small increase in the profits of a privileged few. It seems that in the minds of this fraternity of profiteers, all wild animals are as disposable as their empty champagne bottles, and any living creature, no matter how graceful, can be redesignated as vermin if it attempts to eke out a fair share of provender from its native ground.

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[See also: Roy Dennis’s Restoring the Wild chronicles 60 years of rewilding Britain]

I must confess that this is a pathology I do not understand. My intention here is not to indict hunting, as such; I have been lucky enough to dine with real huntsmen once or twice, folk whose only source of food comes from what they can catch, with honour and skill and an obvious, if unspoken, respect for their quarry.

But the land-profiteer’s contempt for all life, other than what profits himself, is something that mystifies me. Maybe Melanie Challenger is right when she says, in her excellent new book, How To Be Animal: “Most of us act according to intuitions or principles that human needs outrank those of any other living thing. But when we try to isolate something in the human animal and turn it into a person or a moral agent or a soul… we can end up with the mistaken belief that there is something non-biological about us that is ultimately good or important.”

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 I think this is a savvy diagnosis of a key pathology – and, as Challenger goes on to point out, our arrant self-importance may end up having disastrous consequences, not only for other creatures, but for ourselves.

[See also: Watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I wonder why we like to imagine animals are our friends]

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism