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David Taylor, former headkeeper on the Lochindorb estate in the Highlands, has been found not guilty of setting illegal snares to catch mountain hares in 2009.

The case against Mr Taylor’s colleague, Kevin Begg, was dropped last year.

The landmark hearing took place at Inverness Sheriff Court on 29 January.

David McKie, solicitor for the keeper, issued a statement, saying: This was a complex test case which took nearly four years to conclude. The court gave careful consideration to all of the technical evidence and legal argument involved. Mr Taylor operated in good faith and with regard at all times to the law, to accepted local practice and to animal welfare issues. He is pleased that the court has accepted that he acted lawfully.

The case was brought against the two keepers by the Procurator Fiscal Service — equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales — after a walker spotted the snares and contacted the SSPCA.

The case was that the keepers had used illegal snares to catch mountain hares, and the basis of the prosecution was that snaring was an illegal method of taking mountain hares.

However, snaring is not illegal in itself — the law says that using “a trap which is nonselective according to its principle or conditions of use” is unlawful.

Therefore, provided the snare or trap is selective, it is lawful to use one to catch mountain hares.

Evidence from some local gamekeepers who had used the snare in question over many years at particular times of year, and in controlled conditions, persuaded the court that, because no species other than mountain hares were caught, no criminal offence had been committed.

Critically, the snare used was a handmade bespoke snare specifically designed for the capture of mountain hares, and was different in size and shape from a rabbit or fox snare.

The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Alex Hogg, said: “We are delighted the verdicts in this case confirm that both gamekeepers had been acting in good faith throughout and perfectly within the law. As an organisation, we are also pleased for David and his family, who have been living with this for more than three-and-a-half years.”

“David has had an unblemished 50-year career in gamekeeping and has always been held in the greatest regard for the high standards he has kept.”

Later, Mr Hogg talked to Shooting Times regarding the wider implications, saying: “We will be speaking to Scottish Natural Heritage in the wake of the case. It will be important to discuss exactly what is, in its view, suitable for mountain hares and, even though we are delighted at the verdict, we will be seeking further information.”

“Labelling exactly what is intended to be caught is now a requirement of law, and we want to make sure we are giving our members the correct information.”

From 1 April, 2013, it will be illegal to operate a snare in Scotland without the relevant identification number attached — applications should be made now.

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Game Keeper found not guilty in Scottish snaring case