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The madness of March hares

Any day now, with luck, you may see mad March hares performing their rituals in the middle of a field. When the mating urge comes over them, they caper and cavort as if the ground were red hot, and sometimes they sit upright to box with their forefeet. Oddly enough, the ones that go in for such fisticuffs are not aggressive males, fancying themselves miniature Tysons, but females giving over-enthusiastic suitors the brush- off.

Nowhere in England is there a better chance of seeing hares than on the Game Conservancy Council's experimental farm at Loddington in Leicestershire. At a time when many surveys are reporting a decline in hare numbers, the population at Loddington has grown at an astonishing rate.

When the Game Conservancy took over in 1991, a count revealed only seven hares on 600-odd acres. With the introduction of efficient predator-control, and a greater diversity of farm crops, numbers built up rapidly to nearly 100 in 1994 - a total which Game Conservancy scientists considered remarkable. Imagine their astonishment when a census in 1995 showed 195 hares present.

There is no doubt about the causes of this spectacular revival. One is the fact that in spring and early summer the resident gamekeeper, Malcolm Brockless, clears his ground of predators. Whereas on other estates most leverets are killed by foxes and stoats, the absence of natural enemies at Loddington enables a high proportion to survive.

The second favourable factor is the agricultural regime. Experiment has shown that hares prefer to feed on, and live in, vegetation no more than eight or 10 inches tall. On most arable farms, with large fields of wheat or barley, the crops soon grow above that height, leaving them with nothing to eat.

At Loddington the farming is planned so that a greater range of crops and cover is available all year round. Some corn is sown in winter, some in the spring, as well as linseed and beans; there are also numerous set- aside strips, planted with mixtures of grass, rape, and kale. The result is a patchwork, as agreeable to the human eye as it is to hares and game- birds.

Game Conservancy researchers readily admit that the tremendous resurgence has taken them by surprise. They do not yet know what level of population the farm will safely sustain, and they fear that with so many hares on the ground there may be an outbreak of disease such as coccidiosis, a virulent form of diarrhoea, or pseudo-tuberculosis, a bacterial infection which can quickly kill mature animals in spring.

As a precaution, last year they shot 45 hares and sent 18 alive to the Ministry of Defence gunnery ranges at Castlemartin, in Pembrokeshire, where the Commandant, Lt Col Michael Portman, is making a bold attempt to re-colonise 6,000 acres of grassland.

A keen beagler, Colonel Portman saw from old records that hares once flourished in Pembrokeshire: the game-books of the Cawdor Estate, which used to own some of the land, show that in the 1880s it was not unusual to shoot 800 a year. When he arrived at Castlemartin in 1991 there was not a single hare to be seen, but the ranges were full of other wild life, including buzzards, barn owls and choughs (similar to jackdaws).

Being untouched by chemicals, and rarely visited by humans, the grassland seemed ideal for hares. Colonel Portman therefore set about importing some, not only from Loddington, but also from other areas. A batch from the ammunition depot at Kineton, in Warwickshire, arrived "with WD arrows on their bottoms". Meanwhile, he has done all he can to make the environment more attractive, putting in root crops, planting new woodland and culling local foxes.

It is too early to say whether his enterprise will succeed. One snag is that in winter the ranges are grazed down to the texture of a golf course by sheep brought off the Presceli mountains, so that food and cover diminish. Meanwhile, at Loddington, the Game Conservancy's neighbours have accused them of luring all the hares in Leicestershire on to their land. The opposite is manifestly true: that surplus animals are moving out into neighbouring territories - a fact which will no doubt be confirmed when radio-tracking experiments start this autumn.