Science: Hares today, none tomorrow?: A new survey shows that the once common hare is vanishing from British fields. Angela Wilkes finds them cornered but still kicking

A CASUAL rambler, catching sight of the occasional hare zig-zagging across a ploughed field, might think the animal is as abundant and unthreatened as its cousin the rabbit. After all, hares are still hunted, legally and illegally. They continue to be shot as game, and as farmland pests that damage crops and young trees.

Yet a new national survey funded by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is expected to confirm later this year that hare numbers have been steadily dropping over the past 40 years. They may now, for the first time, be below the million mark.

The survey - the first ever properly conducted hare headcount - provides the most accurate tally so far. Hundreds of volunteers were involved, from land managers and pensioners to schoolchildren and keen amateur naturalists. They walked over designated one-kilometre squares of countryside and recorded the number of hares they spotted. A computer calculated the likely density of the hare population in any given area from these sightings.

Britain's hare population isn't just in decline; it's also patchy. Numbers are unevenly distributed, with a bias towards the east of the country. 'There have been zero sightings in parts of the west and south west,' says zoologist Mike Hutchings of Bristol University, 'and we assume that here the hare has died out.'

Yet it was the hare, not the rabbit, which was once a folklore fertility symbol. So what has gone wrong in recent years? Theories range from intensified use of herbicides, pesticides and silage cutting, to habitat interference, oilseed rape planting and 'new' diseases. There are also deaths from road accidents, farm machinery, poaching and hunting.

Of these, habitat interference and new diseases seem the most likely explanations. There have been dramatic changes in Britain's arable landscape since the 1960s, and scientists have identified two apparently new hare diseases. Researchers are therefore focusing their attention on these two areas in particular.

The brown, or European hare (Lepus europaeus) evolved on the wild grasslands of central Asia and spread wherever man cut down forests and planted grain. Early English farms, with their patchwork-quilt fields of varied crops, seasonally rotated, suited the hare's feeding habits. It could move around all year to graze on the tender, protein-rich tips of grasses and cereal crops like wheat, to which its digestive system was suited. When these lengthened and hardened into stalks, the animal simply moved on to newer pastures. The hare also needs crops it can hide in: vegetation must be tall enough to conceal it as it crouches motionless by day its in 'form' - a hollow scooped out of the earth.

For hundreds of years there were enough crops planted by man, and at the right time of year, to sustain Lepus europaeus. Then, around the 1970s, the picture began to change dramatically. Populations on previously hare-rich estates plummeted. 'What was it that happened around that time?' asks Dr Stephen Tapper, director for research at the Game Conservancy and an expert on hares. 'The drop coincides with that period, from the Sixties onwards, when arable farmers were modernising everything. They changed from traditional rotation - cereals followed by grass - and abandoned the sowing of winter wheats (planted in October, coming up in February) in favour of spring cereals (planted in February-March, appearing late spring). Instead of nutritious, all-year-round food, hares faced a new cycle of feast in the mild weather and famine in the coldest parts of the year.'

Worst of all, instead of fields of rotated crops, farmers were embracing the monoculture - turning over 10 fields at a time to the same crop. This prairie was useful to the hare for a limited season only, while the growing cereal tips were rich in protein and low in indigestible fibre.

New research by animal ecologist Graeme McLaren at Bristol University is pinpointing changes in habitat that are putting hare populations under stress. He has collected summer crops as well as wild grasses to check their nutritional content and assess their effect on breeding. 'There appear to be fewer leverets born in the peak breeding period, April to July, than there were during earlier studies in the 1970s,' he says. 'If there are food problems, the young suffer first.'

McLaren will also be combing historical records to see if there is a connection between gamekeepers' shooting figures for hares, and changes in the landscape. It is one of the continuing mysteries of the hare's decline that they are sparse in areas such as Devon and Cornwall, despite the fact that old-fashioned farming methods and traditional field layouts are retained there.

But how could modern farming practices tie in with the incidence of apparently new illnesses? Katherine Whitwell, a Suffolk-based veterinary pathologist, is carrying out a unique study of 100 hares that have died of natural causes. Midway through her research, she says, the commonest hare diseases still appear to be the well-known ones - including a common intestinal organism that can go into overdrive, damaging the hare's gut and stopping it absorbing food.

In the mid-1980s, a new viral hepatitis arrived here, apparently from Germany, with devastating results. Known as European Brown Hare Syndrome, it attacks the liver and central nervous system.

There is another new disease that Katherine Whitwell is looking out for among her sample corpses. Though its effects can be monitored - it damages the part of the animal's nervous system that controls involuntary body functions such as digestion - its origins are unknown. It could be due to a bacterium, a fungus or a neurotoxin, directly or indirectly derived from herbage or soil.

Even if the landscape is turning hostile to the brown hare, at least farmers appear to be on on its side. Tales abound of landowners and managers who enjoy seeing hares, and who won't shoot them unless crop damage is getting out of hand. But there are exceptions. Some landlords apparently instruct their keepers to take rifle, silencer and searchlight and exterminate the entire local population overnight.

They do so,reluctantly, in an attempt to deter the heavy-gambling 'four-wheel-drive brigade' - travelling gangs of men in search of hares upon which to set their rival lurchers (cross-bred greyhounds). 'Gamekeepers are threatened and assaulted, police and farm vehicles are rammed and valuable crops get damaged,' say the Essex police, whose Operation Tortoise successfully shifted the problem north and west to other county boundaries.

There is, however, one very modern aspect of farming which could benefit the beleaguered hare - set-aside, where farmers are paid a subsidy to leave land fallow. Provided such havens are allowed to grow rich in weeds and wild grasses, and left undisturbed, there is a chance they might begin to boost Britain's remaining hare population.

HARE FACTS

Boxing pairs of March hares were once thought to be male rivals. Now mammalogists think one of them is a female, repelling advances from the smaller and lighter male.

Leverets are born fully furred and open-eyed after six weeks' gestation. Each is hidden in a separate 'form' or hollow, moving only to suckle twice a day.

Hares can reach 12 years of age, but the lifespan of a British farmland hare is more like 3-4 years.

Hares stand and flash their white belly hair at foxes to let them know they have seen them, saving both the energy required for a chase.

Top hare speeds of 46mph (72 kmph) make it half as fast again as a fox. Zig-zagging, as well as speed, helps it shake off a pursuer.

There are 27 hare species, including the US 'jackrabbit'.

If you find a hare that appears to have died of natural causes, help Katherine Whitwell by telephoning the Hareline: 0860 575655 or 0638 750189.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links