Hare today, gone tomorrow?

One of Britain's great survivors is now under threat, writes Daniel Butler

Conservationists are alarmed by a sharp decline in Britain's brown hare population. Although extinction is still a long way off, they agree that urgent action is needed to help one of the oldest members of our fauna.

"Hares are remarkable animals. There's no other comparatively small animal that lives in the open, completely exposed to elements all year round," points out Liz Bradshaw. Now a research associate at Cambridge Zoology Department, she studied hares for her PhD and is a great admirer of their resilience. But says this is being put to severe test.

Britain has two species of hare, the mountain, or blue hare, Lepus timidus; and the brown, or European, Lepus europeus, a creature of arable farmland. Living in the open, they are relatively easily seen, and are at their most conspicuous during the "mad March" breeding season when the normally solitary creatures indulge in seemingly pointless chases (males driving off rivals) and "boxing" (females rebuffing over-amorous mates).

Hares are larger than rabbits, have much longer legs, and - except when running flat out - carry their ears upright. And while a rabbit's first instinct is to make for cover when threatened, a hare usually heads for open ground, relying on speed and stamina to out-distance its enemies. Close up, the distinction is even easier: hares are generally reddish- brown (rather than grey), and have black tips to their ears. Their large, bulbous eyes give them a slightly eerie appearance, perhaps explaining their mythical role as witches' familiars.

The fact that such superstitions can be traced back to the Celts, who worshipped the creature, suggests that brown hares - unlike rabbits - are indigenous. Yet recent research points to their introduction between 500BC and 500AD; the animal of Celtic myth was probably the mountain hare.

Whatever their origins, brown hares slowly increased in numbers as land came under cultivation. Experts believe they probably peaked around the turn of this century, at about 4 million, then declined during the Twenties and Thirties. After the Second World War agricultural improvements led to a rise in numbers, but the population fell sharply during the Seventies and Eighties.

The decline is now thought to have levelled off, but an accurate census is difficult. The greatest numbers are generally found in arable areas, yet even here populations fluctuate widely. One survey puts the mid- winter population at between 1.3 and 1.9 million; another estimates it at 820,000. Extrapolating numbers from shooting returns, the Game Conservancy Trust puts the population at just 1 million. This has triggered sufficient alarm for the hare to be given its own biodiversity action plan, and now a working group, headed by the Game Conservancy and the Mammal Society, is looking for ways of doubling hare numbers by the year 2010.

Agricultural intensification is thought to be one of the major problems. This has shifted food production away from traditional mixed farming to autumn-sown, single-crop farms with larger fields. The result, according to Steve Gibson, species advisor for the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee, is a dearth of food at critical times of the year: "There are plenty of tender shoots in the winter and spring," he says, "but little in summer as the crops ripen."

This does not give the whole picture, however, because hares remain numerous in intensively farmed areas such as East Anglia, while falling in numbers in the smaller, "mixed" farms of the West Country. Here a shift from haymaking to silage may explain the decrease, as the young - leverets - which are born and suckled in the open, are vulnerable to the mowing machines.

Increased predation is another factor. Apart from man, foxes are the main enemy and numbers have increased as traditional gamekeepering has declined. Research on a Leicestershire farm suggests that culling foxes can reverse the downward trend: "When the Game Conservancy took the 700- acre farm over in 1992 there were only half-a-dozen hares," says Stephen Tapper, director of research at the Game Conservancy. "We began fox control and now there are between 100 and 200 hares." Even so, he says, predation is worsened by modern agriculture, which forces inexperienced leverets out of ripening crops to forage around field edges where they are easily ambushed.

Mr Tapper believes that if the action plan is to achieve its objective of doubling numbers by 2010, there will have to be a general change in farming practices: "The key is going to be getting agri-environment schemes working in arable and pastoral areas," he says. "That probably means incorporating more grassland and a wider range of crops in arable areas, and patches of longer grass in pastoral ones." He admits, however, that in the long term the future of the brown hare is likely to be more closely linked to Common Agricultural Policy reform than to mere good intentions.

For a free fact sheet about the brown hare, send an SAE to The Mammal Society, 15 Cloisters House, 8 Battersea Park Road, London SW8 4BG

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
film
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried