Hare today, gone tomorrow?

Once, they were a common sight. But modern farming and unregulated shooting have dramatically reduced their numbers. Can they be saved? Peter Marren investigates

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Br'er Rabbit was a hare. So was Bugs Bunny, whose first outing, back in 1940, was titled The Wild Hare. The reputation of the hare as a merry prankster goes back to African folk tales which were brought to America by slaves and eventually made famous in the tales of Uncle Remus. Here in Western Europe, the hare enjoyed a different kind of fame. Hunters in the Middle Ages saw hares as semi-magical animals. They could change sex at will and outrun any dog apart from those specially bred to catch them. The last bit is true.

Today the hare has acquired yet another identity. It has become one of the icons of the environmental movement. It has even acquired its own protection group, the British Brown Hare Preservation Society. The hare was one of the first wild animals to receive its own Species Action Plan in the 1990s. The reason is not that the animal is about to die out - there are still about three-quarters of a million adult hares in Britain - but that it was clearly sliding downhill. For every hare in the landscape today, there were four a century ago. In some areas, such as south-west England, you now rarely see hares at all. The brown hare has, in fact, declined further than any other native wild mammal apart from the water vole.

So what has gone wrong for the hare, and what can be done about it? Perhaps protecting it would be a start. Oddly, for an animal that is "red listed" as endangered, the hare can be shot quite legally without a licence. And because shooting hares is unregulated, no one knows how many die this way every year. But the Hare Preservation Society believes that organised shoots can kill 40 per cent of the local hare population.

In a token effort to discourage shooting during the main breeding season, British hare meat may not be sold or offered in a restaurant between March and July. Hares can also no longer be chased down and killed by dogs - which effectively means they cannot be legally hunted at all. But a lot of hare-coursing still goes on. And because the activity has been driven underground, no one knows how many hares are being killed by dogs.

So why isn't the hare protected by law, as so many mammals and nearly all birds are? Because hares eat crops. The familiar image of the lisping, wise-cracking Bugs Bunny is accurate to the extent that hares really do enjoy the odd carrot. They also enjoy nibbling newly planted trees. Like us, hares enjoy freshness and variety in their diet, and help themselves to whatever tender plants are in season. However, contrary to their reputation, they actually prefer wild grasses and herbs. They become a nuisance mainly in the grain prairies of eastern England where the hedgerows and borders have been bulldozed into oblivion, leaving nothing but crops to feed on.

Banning shooting altogether would antagonise the farming community, especially in carrot and beet-growing areas. The Hare Preservation Society has opted instead for the more moderate course of pressing for a shooting close season - a ban on shooting during the hare's breeding season from February to September inclusive. Its founder Rodney Hale points out that the hare is currently the only game species without one. "We accept that hares can be a threat to crops in a few cases," he says, "and the remaining months would enable the farmer to reduce hare numbers where necessary." But the society is "totally opposed to all killing of hares for amusement".

But, as the society is well aware, shortening the shooting season will not solve the problem. Hares are under pressure for other reasons. They are facing chronic food shortages. You might think there should be plenty to eat out there, and often there is. But, and here's the rub, not necessarily all year round.

More than almost any other British animal, brown hares live on farmland year in, year out. In some ways the switch in cereal planting from spring to autumn has benefited them. They can now find young grain to nibble in mid-winter, traditionally the hungry season. But that now leaves an awkward gap in the early spring when the growing wheat and barley has become unpalatable - just at the moment when the hare needs to reach top form for mating and breeding.

Hares are also vulnerable to farm machinery. Adult hares are perfectly capable, in theory, of dodging tractors and harvesters. But they instinctively sit tight, and bolt only at the last minute. Young hares (leverets) do not move far from their birthplaces among the grass, and so are even more vulnerable. It is the consequent fate of many of them to be mangled by the great rolling machines of modern farming as they scythe the grass and bag it into silage. The society would like the machines to work from the inside outwards to give the hares a better chance to escape. But hares may not necessarily be the first thing on the minds of the drivers as they sit in their sound-proof cabs listening to the test score.

Yet, paradoxically, the mess we have made of the world's climate may yet come to the rescue of the beleaguered brown hare in the long run. If climate change brings drier, hotter summers, more leverets will survive and the species may well recover lost ground. Perhaps global warming will help us to reach the optimistic Action Plan target of two million hares.

But, if so, there will be a price to pay. And it will probably be paid by the brown hare's upland cousin, the mountain hare. Mountain hares are animals of grouse moors and hillsides in the north. They have little to fear from combine harvesters or coursing gangs. Compared with brown hares, mountain hares traditionally enjoyed a fairly quiet life.

Yet the quiet life may be over. Like their lowland cousin, mountain hares can be shot at any time of the year. They were a traditional perk for the ghillies and beaters in late winter after the red deer shooting season had ended (and jolly nice they are too - the gamey essence of the great outdoors). However, on some estates, the policy seems to have shifted from sustainable shooting to complete extermination.

Mountain hares are believed to be the host of a virus-carrying tick which is fatal to grouse chicks. Like the badger, they have become the scapegoats for an economic problem. However, unlike badgers, you don't need a licence to shoot or trap a mountain hare. There is nothing to stop shooting estates destroying every hare they can lay their hands on if they want to.

If that is not enough, the mountain hare has another deadly foe - its own relative, the brown hare. An increase in average temperature of only a degree or so - less than the prediction for 50 years' time - will be enough, it is estimated, to bring down the mountain hare. In the warming climate, grass will spread uphill at the expense of heather. And, inevitably, the brown hare will follow it, taking more and more territory away from its slightly smaller cousin. That is, supposing the cousin is still around after its showdown with the gun-toting ghillies.

Creatures that can run, swim - and box

Hares are bigger than rabbits, with longer legs and longer ears. Close up their eyes have pupils, giving them a much more alert and intelligent expression than the more docile-looking bunny.

A hare can run at up to 45mph (70kmh) - half as fast again as the top speed of its main predator, the fox. They have large hearts to cope with the pressure of high-speed acceleration and running. Hares are also good swimmers.

Mad March hares are often seen boxing. This isn't male rivalry, as was once assumed. It's more likely to be the female beating off an over-amorous male, or even testing his devotion.

Given the right circumstances, hares are prolific breeders, capable of three or even four litters between February and September. They are also one of the few animals that can become pregnant again while an earlier foetus is still in the womb.

Hares, like rabbits, have all-round vision. However their front vision is poor, which is why hares will sometimes trundle down tramlines in the corn straight towards you.

Injured hares make a sound just like the cry of a human baby.

The poet William Cowper kept tame hares. They would lie like dogs in front of the fire and race to greet the baker in order to lick the flour off his apron.

Hares are most active in early spring, especially early in the morning when, in Wordsworth's lines: "The hare is running races in her mirth; / And with her feet she from the plashy earth / Raises a mist, that glittering in the sun, / Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run."

Country people once thought lapwing eggs in fields were actually laid by hares. This belief gave rise to the Easter bunny. This bunny is, of course, a hare.

Some claim to see in the markings of the full moon a hare holding an egg. The animal is on its side with its long ears to the right. Once you "see" it, it's obvious.

For details about the British Brown Hare Preservation Society, see www.brown-hare-preservation.co.uk

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