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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee