by Tim Bonner

In an extraordinary, but sadly predictable, Holyrood debate on the Animals and Welfare (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, on Wednesday night, the Scottish Government agreed to a Green Party amendment to make mountain hares a protected species. 

There are a number of factors that have caused deep concern and frustration over the handling of the amendment. Most unforgivable was the fact it was parachuted into the bill at the last moment, and despite there having been no consultation or scrutiny at committee stage, it was supported by the Scottish Government in a sequence of events which made it fairly obvious that a deal had been done between Ministers and the Greens.

What is worse is that the Scottish Government's own review into grouse moor management, the Werrity review, made recommendations in relation to mountain hare control which are workable. Those recommendations have the support of land managers but will now be ignored.

Research shows that hare populations are highest on moorland managed for grouse shooting, which is one area where they are culled to protect both the ecosystem and the health of hare populations themselves. Another area where hares are regularly culled - and where Scottish National Heritage has regularly issued licences for out of season culling - is in newly planted forestry. The Scottish Government has ambitious tree planting targets and it is unthinkable that mountain hare control will not be licenced to mitigate their impact on trees and other habitats. The government will now, presumably, have to reverse engineer a licensing system that will allow land managers to cull the hares they were already culling. There can be few better examples of how not to enact good legislation, but in some ways the process is not the worst of the Scottish Government's sins.

Even worse than what it has done, is why the Scottish Government has done it. Firstly, there is a party-political element as from time to time the SNP Government needs to throw sweets to the Green Party, which it relies on for a majority on budget legislation. Secondly, Ministers and SNP MSPs obviously think that this is a populist issue which is somehow going to benefit them at next year's election. They really seem to believe that the usual rash of online petitions and automatically generated emails that accompany every animal rights campaign can be translated into positive voting intention at elections. 

Just as Ministers have departed from the science over mountain hares, they have also ignored the evidence on voting intention and voters' priorities. Again, and again, polling confirms that animal rights issues like 'protecting' mountain hares have no impact at all on how people vote, yet many politicians remain obsessed with reacting to every fluffy online campaign.

The result is both bad law and bad politics. Governments pass legislation that is unnecessary and ill-considered, whilst political parties focus on issues which are at the bottom of voters' concerns. The mountain hare debacle is another example in a growing list. 

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