One of our favourite British mammals is the hare. With their long ears and slender body they are certainly handsome animals. In the springtime, when brown hares perform their mad boxing routines, watching them is especially wonderful.
But just how easy is it for walkers and hikers to observe hares whilst they are out walking in the countryside? In order to find out more about British Hares, we recently contacted Samuel Bolton from the North West Brown Hare Project.
The North West Brown Hare Project aims to develop an understanding of hare populations in the North West. Through this knowledge it is possible to target suitable areas for habitat management. Management techniques include planting hedgerows and hedge trees, linking hare populations and providing advice to landowners on the best way to manage their land for the brown hare.
CheapTents: What sparked your interest in hares?
Samuel Bolton: I used to work in a bank as a financial adviser, but decided to pack it in and try for a career in countryside management. To earn some extra money whilst studying again, I started work in a hotel serving breakfasts and working in the bar. The hotel was next to some fields and I used to watch two hares in the field browsing and playing around with each other most mornings. It always amazed me that they would seemingly disappear after a certain time.
Later on, I found work with a countryside management contractor which involved stone pitching sections of Cutgate bridleway between Langsett and Derwent reservoirs in the Peak District. Early morning starts meant that I’d regularly see mountain hares on the moors. At some points, you’d see large groups of mountain hare together, chasing each other around. On very misty days in the early morning, if you were sat quietly, they would even come out of the mist and bimble past you!
CheapTents: Which species of hare live in the UK and whereabouts in the country do they live?
Samuel Bolton: We have two species of hare in the UK, the native mountain hare (lepus timidus) and the brown hare (lepus europaeus). Through cave findings, it was originally thought that the brown hare was native, but it is likely that the finds were mistaken for mountain hares. The main indicator, in recent times, for brown hares being introduced and mountain hares being native, comes from DNA. The DNA of brown hares found in the UK is very similar, however the DNA of mountain hares can vary greatly. This difference points to brown hare having been introduced.
Brown hare can be found all over the UK, except in some moorland areas of Scotland and the Peak District of England, where they are replaced by mountain hare. The mountain hares found in the Peak District were introduced for game in the late 19th century.
CheapTents: What do hares eat?
Samuel Bolton: Hares are herbivores, so feed on grasses and herbs mostly. Unlike cows, they do not have the capability to break down some of the food stuffs that they eat. Hares, along with rabbits and beavers, get round this by re-ingesting their dropping a second or even a third time.
CheapTents: Are hare populations under threat and, if so, why?
Samuel Bolton: Hare populations are under threat. The Brown Hare has suffered a 75% decline in England since the 1960’s (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust). The significant decline in the UK population subsequently led to it being designated a UK BAP [Biodiversity Action Plan] priority species in 1994. The substantial decline is due partly to changes in land management and agricultural intensification, but also from poaching and illegal coursing (Hutchings & Harris 1996, Cowan 2004). One other factor that seems to be over looked often, is the outright loss of land to wildlife, through commercial and residential developments. These developments, along with large increases in the UK’s road network, are likely to have fragmented hare populations, making them less resilient.
CheapTents: Thankfully hare coursing has been made illegal under the Hunting (with dogs) Act 2004. Is this law being flouted and, if so, have the authorities secured any convictions?
Samuel Bolton: The law is being flouted and convictions are rare. Due to the difficulties in monitoring such activities, the true extent of illegal poaching and lamping is unclear. However, farmers I work with often complain about “dog men” coming on to their land after hares. The more these activities are brought to the attention of the police, the more evidence the police have for diverting resources into tackling this issue.
CheapTents: Are there any common misconceptions that label hares as being a nuisance?
Samuel Bolton: Unlike rabbits, hares tend to feed alone and so the damage that they do to crops is a lot less than rabbits. Having said that, they are very partial to lettuces, and one farmer I know says that they love his leek crop.
CheapTents: How can walkers and hikers maximise their chances of observing hares in the wild?
Samuel Bolton: Hares are generally nocturnal and so the best time to see them is at dawn or dusk. For brown hares, the best time of year is around March to May, when they are actively breeding and grass or crops haven’t got too high.
Brown hares like flat open fields surrounded by woodland. Flat fields mean that they have good lines of sight for predators and they don’t have to use large amounts of energy going up and down hills. The woodland gives them cover from predators and from the elements, especially in winter.
Hares are mostly seen in arable areas but can be seen in large numbers of pastoral areas as well.
In the day time, hares lay up in “forms”. Hares don’t burrow like rabbits do, so they dig these small furrows in the ground to lie and watch for predators.
Through the day, hares can be seen in these forms if you’re lucky. If you’re using binoculars, look into the middle of the field or around the edges.
For mountain hares, the best time to see them is in the winter, when their coats turn white but the snow hasn’t arrived yet. They can be picked out quite easily laying up through the day in rocky areas or in peat hags. They can often be dismissed as the last of the snow that evaded the sun.
CheapTents: Can walkers and hikers do anything to help hare conservation?
Samuel Bolton: Yes, they can send in their hare sightings to their local records centre, or if they live in the North West they can send them in to the SITA Trust funded North West Brown Hare Projects website at www.brownhare.org.uk. The project also has a Facebook page where people post their hare pictures and stories.
People can also volunteer to complete a formal survey, where they get issued a map near to where they live so they can look for hares in a more scientific way. This only takes place in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, but people can contact the Mammal Society or their local wildlife trust to see if anything is happening locally.
Walkers and hikes can also play their part by reporting to the police, anybody who they think maybe poaching or lamping illegally.
CheapTents: How can recording hare observations be used in their conservation?
Samuel Bolton: Hare observations allow conservationist to see how hare populations are faring and also target habitat improvement work into areas that will benefit hares most.
The records will also be used to produce a national mammal atlas that the Mammal Society is putting together.
All the records are only shown at a resolution that wouldn’t allow poachers to use the information for the wrong reasons.
CheapTents: What type of conservation measures are needed to protect hares?
Samuel Bolton: Measures that provide year round food and cover are the best ways to help hares. Farmers and landowners can help by joining the environmental stewardships schemes run by the government.
CheapTents: What can hikers and wild campers do to minimise disturbance to hares?
Samuel Bolton: Hares are not good at maintaining fat reserves and so disturbance can be a real issue for them. Where possible, hikers and wild campers should keep to footpaths and keep their dogs on a lead.
CheapTents: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Samuel Bolton: I’m especially keen to hear from farmers and land owners who would like to encourage hares on their land. So if they or anyone else for that matter would like to get in touch with me about hares, they are welcome to get in contact by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by ringing 0161 3424409 / 07854163376
CheapTents: Many thanks, Samuel, for taking the time to tell us all about these fascinating creatures!
Hare Did You Know?
Here are four fascinating facts about hares…
- Hares are lagomorphs, an order of animal that has existed for 90 million years
- Young hares, less than one year old, are called leverets
- Hares can rapidly accelerate, running at speeds of up to 45mph
- The collective noun for a group of hares is a “drove”
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