From 1983, until the passing of the Hunting Act, the hare hunting packs have collected unique annual data on hare numbers sighted covering over three thousand sites in England and Wales. These have been collated and analysed by the Oxford Wildlife Conservation Unit and demonstrate a gradual small improvement in hare populations. They record natural fluctuations in the size and health of hare populations over a wide range of different areas and habitats. In the process of gathering this information, less than 0.2% of the estimated total hare population were caught.
A formally constituted hare conservation group is tasked to:
- Keep the Association informed as to reports of hare populations.
- Collate and analyse as appropriate hare reports submitted by hunts
- Advise the AMHB Committee on measures of hare conservation
- Maintain contact with other national hare conservation bodies – particularly English Nature and the GCWT
- Encourage hunts to establish and maintain contacts with local BAPs and to monitor the outcomes
- Publish reports on hare populations
Following the passing of the Hunting Act 2004, hunts switched their activities from hunting the hare to exempt hunting within the Act They, however, broadly continued their exempt activities in the same areas so as to maintain an important degree of consistency in their important role in recording hare numbers. In addition, a number of hunts carry out unique and more detailed reporting on hare habitats such as predation, game keeping levels, and other similar factors involved in day-to-day countryside management.
The Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) is a farmland mammal commonly found throughout the UK mainland. It was certainly present in Britain two thousand years ago. In Scotland and certain localised areas in Northern England a separate species, the Blue or Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus), is also present. In winter its coat turns white. The hares in Ireland are also of a different genus from the brown hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) and are believed to be a sub species of the mountain hare.
The present population of brown hares in Britain is probably in the region of one million, not very different from that of the magpie. However, unlike the magpie, the hare is not often seen as it prefers to hide during the day and to feed during the night. Hares are extremely adaptable and, while they prefer a mix of habitat within a small area, they can be found anywhere in farm, moor or woodland.
The brown hare has been known to breed throughout the year but leverets born in late autumn or winter are unlikely to survive particularly if it is wet and cold. The majority are conceived and born between the months of April and early September.
Population densities of the hare vary widely from area to area. Where predator control is implemented and cover and food available to the hare throughout the year, as in much of the East and South of England, very high hare numbers are sustainable. In Wales and the West Country intensive grass production and the associated higher levels of leveret mortality can result in much lower populations. However, monitoring suggests that populations in the different areas tend to be constant. If the habitat is improved hare numbers can increase rapidly. Understanding the effect of habitat and other variables on hare numbers remains important to the future of the population.
In the late nineteenth century the British population of the brown hare was possibly as high as several million and it remained so in the early part of the next century. A decline in their numbers began during the Great War when many gamekeepers, who had rigorously controlled the hare’s predators, were called to arms never to be replaced. This was exacerbated during the Second World War and the subsequent drive to increase UK food production, the intensification of agriculture and land use and a move from the mixed cropping pattern of small farms favoured by the hare resulted in further pressures for the hare.
The species has proved resilient in the face of these challenges however and from a low in the nineteen seventies the population has shown a gradual increase to the present day. A major contribution in the measurement of this recovery has been the reports of the 90 packs of beagles, harriers and bassets that maintain detailed records of hares seen during each days hunting.
The future of the hare will depend on the importance that we place on its right to survive. The recent import being placed on food security and biofuel production is likely to pose fresh challenges to the sustainability of the hare population in the UK as the drive to increase crop yields intensifies. The hare needs a “champion” in what is an increasingly busy countryside – and that is the principal role of the two associations – the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) and the Masters of Basset Hounds Association (MBHA)
Managing farmland to conserve the brown hare
Here are some practical steps that can be taken to manage farmland in a way that will encourage the hare population to increase.
Hares are most common in arable areas. However, mature summer crops provide little grazing resulting in hares losing condition and the chance of leveret survival is reduced. A hare’s habitat range can be up to 38 hectares and they will shift their activity between areas as different food becomes available. With this in mind to improve the hares’ habitat on your land you can
- Maintain a patchwork of crops, farming groups of fields in a block can limit hares source of food at certain times of year.
- Split large fields with a grass strip, beetle bank or set aside
- Keep a wide grass strip under hedges, fences and alongside tracks; even a meter or two could be a lifeline for hares in summer
- Incorporate grassy areas into Stewardship/Tir Gofal schemes to make them ‘hare friendly’
Hare numbers have declined in pastoral areas. Hares prefer not to use fields containing stock and increased stocking density has reduced suitable habitat. Mowing and silage production has a detrimental effect on hares – one study showed that up to 22% of the hare population were killed during mowing. Mowing and intense grazing can leave can leave leverets exposed to predators such as owls, foxes or buzzards. Increased use of fertilizer could also have an effect on the fertility of hares.
- Fence off stock from some areas to allow thick grass to develop
- Forage crops of all kinds are liked by hares
- Game crops provide useful cover in autumn and winter
- Grass cutting can kill hares, especially leverets. Cut from the center of the field outwards to increase the chances of hares escaping.