When did you last see a hare? During the late 1880s there were around four million hares in Britain and their springtime boxing antics were a familiar sight to many a countryside walker. But their numbers have plummeted since those times – by around 75% since the 1960s A national survey conducted by the University of Bristol during 1997/08 indicated a population of 730,000 hares in Britain. Putting that figure into perspective, the wild rabbit population is estimated at 40 million. The hare’s population decline has been especially steep in the south-west. Computer modelling studies have shown that the low density hare populations found in the region are likely to be highly unstable, with a high chance of local extinctions.The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear, but changed farming practices and patterns of land use have certainly been major factors. In the south-west, where grassland farming predominates, the switch from haymaking to silage production has resulted in increased casualties to hares from farm machinery – especially leverets. Modern, fast growing grass varieties enable several silage cuts in a season – presenting a danger to hares and other wildlife on each occasion. We have no figures for Britain but in Germany an estimated 153,000 hares are killed by farm machinery annually. The good news is that researchers in Denmark are developing a tractor mounted thermal imaging device which detects hares and other wildlife hidden in crops.
Hares are not regarded as agricultural pests and most farmers enjoy having them on their land. Hares and rabbits do not generally mix, so if a farmer has hares in residence he knows they will keep rabbits away. Given the opportunity, hares prefer to eat wild grasses and herbs to cultivated forms, with grasses predominating in the winter and herbs in the summer. Environmental Stewardship offers uncultivated field margins as a management option to farmers which benefits hares by providing wild forage maturing in succession throughout the year and also safe shelter for them to rear their young. Farmers are compensated for the consequent loss of productive land.
In 1995 government concern for the status of the brown hare resulted in a Species Action Plan having among its objectives a doubling of the hare population by the year 2010, but this was not achieved. Reputable surveys indicate that in some areas numbers have increased while in others they have decreased, but overall the national population has remained stable since 1995.
Despite their reputation for timidity, hares can be very courageous, especially in defence of their young. There is a case on record of a mother fighting off a buzzard and a crow at the same time. In another case a sparrow hawk had seized a leveret but was only a few feet off the ground and the mother leapt up to retrieve it.
Hares are supreme athletes and healthy adults can reach 45 mph, which is 50% faster than a fox. Only by stealth and ambush does a fox have any chance of taking an adult hare. Hares can also leap up to18 feet which they utilise to break their scent trail as they return to their “forms” to rest, or at dusk to give their offspring their single daily feed. Back-tracking is another tactic they use to confuse their scent trail.
Hares are also good swimmers and up to a mile has been recorded on several occasions, especially in estuarine areas such as the Essex and Suffolk coasts. They may do this to reach one of their favourite food plants – the sea pea Lathyrus maritima. In one case on the northern England coast a hare was seen to swim a mile on several occasions to visit his mate on an offshore island. Even more remarkably he waited on the shore until so-called “slack water” when there was no tidal flow to carry him away from his destination.
And those boxing antics? Not usually a contest between rival males as previously thought, but a female coming into season, yet not quite ready to accept the male and boxing off his over-amorous advances.
Rodney Hale MSc.
Founder – Hare Preservation Trust
Recorder of Mammals – Devonshire Association.
~ Hare by Mike Huskisson.
The Hare in the Lane, courtesy of Ama Menec.
Ama Menec – Sculpture
Ceramic and bronze sculptures of British wildlife.