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We would be mad to stand by and let the hare become extinct says PETER FROST

On an evening stroll across the fields near my home on the Warwickshire Northamptonshire  borders just as the sun was disappearing beneath the jagged horizon of a freshly ploughed field dusted with snow we stopped to watch a couple of brown hares (Lepus europaeus).

They spotted us almost as soon as we caught sight of them. Up they stood, as if to attention, nose and tall ears twitching they watched us cautiously before loping away across the furrows.

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Once a common occurrence, today you are much less likely to see a hare on a country walk. The young hares – leverets – are even harder to spot.

It is easier to spot them on the bare earth fields of winter when snow or frost paint the landscape white.

A century ago there were about four million brown hares in Britain. Now the population is down by more than 80% and the decline continues. None of our native mammals except perhaps the water vole has been hit harder. In the South-West, the brown hare may even be locally extinct.

There are a number of reasons for the decline, but intensification of agriculture has certainly been one major factor.

Hares do not hibernate or store lots of fat in their bodies. They need a constant food supply throughout the year. For this they need landscapes rich in biodiversity and seasonal crops.  Once traditional hay meadows and crops grown in rotation, provided just that. Today few hay meadows remain.

Hay making has largely been replaced by silage production which is more profitable and less dependent upon weather conditions. Out in the countryside today you never see a haystack but polythene wrapped silage bales are everywhere.

Grassland for silage production tends to be sown with a single species, resulting in poor biodiversity. Other changes in the pattern of land use have not been helpful to hares either.

Winter cereals offer hares a food supply between November and February. In the absence of spring sown crops the species then suffer a food shortage at the very time when their energy needs are greatest – at the height of their breeding season.

Hares actually prefer to eat wild grasses and herbs, grass in winter and herbs in summer, but 150,000 miles of hedgerow have been grubbed out during the past 50 years – depriving them and many other species of both food and shelter.

Larger fields containing single crops also mean the animals have to travel further in their effort to maintain continuous grazing.

Hares are renowned for their speed. They can accelerate to 45mph, yet have a habit freezing and of sitting tight to the ground when a predator approaches. This makes them vulnerable to farm machinery.

Many leverets too are killed by harvesters in silage fields as they wait for their mothers to return at dusk to give them their single daily feed.

Despite its decline, the hare is the only game species in Britain which does not have a shooting close season. Large, winter sporting shoots in East Anglia during February and March can kill half of the entire national population.

Since the breeding season is well under way by February, orphaned leverets are left to die of starvation.

Hares do have a measure of protection through their own Preservation Act of 1892 which prohibits the sale of hares or leverets between all of March to the end of July. Hare must not be on the menu in restaurants during this period either.

That doesn’t stop illegal shooting in any season, generally at night using high powered lamps to attract and hypnotise the hares. This lamping is another important factor in reducing hare populations.

Although the hunting of any wild animal using dogs is now illegal there is still a great deal of illicit hare coursing using greyhounds, whippets and greyhound crossbred dogs called lurchers.

Hares are netted by these so called sportsmen to be used at live prey for the dogs to chase, catch and tear apart while large sums of money are bet on the fastest dogs.

When hares were common we used to describe the contesting male’s spring time behavior as ‘mad as a March hare’. If we let these noble animals be persecuted into oblivion it will be us, not them that are totally insane.

This article appeared in the Morning Star in Spring 2012

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