An MSP has accused Scottish ministers of “turning a blind eye” to the mass slaughter of mountain hares, on the first day of the open season.
Tens of thousands of the animals will be killed before the season ends on 28 February, mainly by gamekeepers on shooting estates.
Gamekeepers and estate managers claim the culls limit the spread of ticks, protect trees and safeguard fragile environments, and a policy of voluntary restraint is in place.
Campaigners believe it is cruel and unnecessary.
Statistics released under Freedom of information show an average of nearly 26,000 hares are killed per season, with the highest of 37,681 culled in 2014.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon previously said large-scale culling of the species is “unacceptable and could put the conservation status at risk”.
Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone, deputy convener of Holyrood’s cross-party group on animal welfare, who raised the issue of mass culls with the First Minister in March, said: “Sporting estates’ belief that it protects grouse against viruses has no basis in science, so the failure to ban this horrific practice shows commercial interests are driving government policy.
Ms Johnstone,the Holyrood ‘species champion’ for mountain hare, added: “When I raised this issue with Nicola Sturgeon , she said she shared my concerns, would explore all options to prevent mass culling, and would hold urgent talks with gamekeepers. Did these talks happen? And what progress has been made on preventing culls?
“Scotland is a nation of animal lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The public are fed up with the Scottish Government dragging its feet on animal cruelty, allowing our hillsides to be used for blood sports.”
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) declined to comment. In March a SGA spokesman said mountain hare overgrazing was damaging moorland.
Harry Huyton, director of OneKind animal rights campaign charity, said: “The First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have both been clear large-scale culling of mountain hares is unacceptable, yet once again the killing season has begun and Scotland’s mountain hares are left unprotected.”
Around 100 MSPs are species champions, lsending political support to protecting of Scotland’s wildlife.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ministers are legally obliged to safeguard the conservation status of mountain hares and take that responsibility seriously.
“The independently-led Grouse Moor Management Group, set up to examine how to ensure grouse moor management is sustainable and legally compliant, is also looking at mountain hare management as part of its remit. The group will report back to the Environment Secretary in Spring 2019. We have already made clear we will take further action if there is firm, scientific evidence of significant population declines.
“Large scale culling cannot be justified. However, it is important to remember it may be necessary to control mountain hare numbers in specific circumstances, such as to protect native woodlands or commercial forestry.”