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2021: The year of the hare

Matt Browne, Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link, writes on the opportunity to recover brown hare populations - and to rediscover an ancient symbol of hope.

January 2021

The birds are gone to bed, the cows are still,
And sheep lie panting on each old mole-hill;
And underneath the willow's gray-green bough,
Like toil a-resting, lies the fallow plough.
The timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lane's road to dust and dance and play,
Then dabble in the grain by naught deterred
To lick the dew-fall from the barley's beard;
Then out they sturt again and round the hill
Like happy thoughts dance, squat, and loiter still

Hares at Play, John Clare

The poet John Clare was writing in the early nineteenth century, when 4 million brown hares lived in Britain. Today, there are fewer than 800,000. Hares dance, play and loiter still – but only just.

Hare numbers continue to fall in the face of a threefold assault. Like all British mammals, hares have been hit hard by habitat loss - in their case, the degradation and development of arable land. Arable field margins are the favoured habitat of hares; they use a mosaic of varied crops, grassland, and vegetation for food, shelter and to escape from predators. Increases in field sizes and a switch to crop monocultures have reduced the quantity and quality of such field margins. This impact has been exacerbated by development, which in many places has removed the habitat all together - 1,121 km2 of arable farmland (an area the size of Bedfordshire) have been lost to urban development in Great Britain since 1990.

With shelter and escape spaces shrinking, hares are also increasingly vulnerable from predation from foxes, birds of prey – and us. It remains legal to shoot hares all year round, leading to a double blow to hare populations, with losses from animals killed directly being matched by the consequent mortality amongst infant hares (leverets) orphaned in the breeding season. Leverets are highly dependent on their mothers for a month after birth, and those orphaned through shooting in the breeding season face a slow death from starvation. A 2017 paper published in Wildlife Biology estimates that around 7% of leverets die in this manner in England and Wales each year.

Hares that survive habitat loss and shooting face a third threat arising from human activity – hare coursing. This bloodsport sees dogs set on hares in the wild, with bets usually taken on whether the dog or the hare will win the race. Although made illegal under the Hunting Act 2004, the practice continues. Research undertaken by the Link Wildlife Crime Working Group has shown that sanctions, typically fines in the low hundreds, are an insufficient deterrent when weighted against the thousands that can be raised from organising bets on hare coursing sessions. As a result, coursing continues to take place on a significant scale; in Lincolnshire alone, over 4,000 hare coursing incidents were recorded from 2016 to 2019.

In recognition of these threats, hares were listed as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan in 1994, but there is no sign that their decline has been halted. Without action this iconic British mammal, carried into battle by Boudica, lauded by poets and writers from Roberts Burns to Lewis Carroll, and beloved by millions, will fade out of the land and into memory.

Happily, there are the signs that the tide may be about to change. December 2020 saw a debate in Westminster Hall on the impact of hare coursing, and the advancement of practical solutions to increase sanctions for practitioners. This followed on the heels of a May 2019 Private Members Bill, proposing a close season for hare shooting, to prevent the orphaning of leverets.

In a stroke of luck for hares everywhere, the backbencher proposing the Bill was appointed as Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs two months later. George Eustice’s track record of championing the welfare of brown hares is an encouraging portent for the species. Link’s Wildlife Crime Group is in touch with Defra to urge the swift progression of new measures to tackle the pressure on hares from both legal and illegal hunting.

Whilst a close season for hare shooting and tougher sanctions for hare coursers offer quick biodiversity wins for the Government, habitat loss is a harder nut to crack. The Agriculture Act’s Environmental Land Management and the Environment Bill’s Biodiversity Net Gain schemes could make a significant difference, if the details of both fully recognise the habitat needs of hares. The presumption that arable land offers limited biodiversity value needs to be challenged – hares use field centres as well as field margins, relying on varied crops for food and utilising the expanse of fields to escape predators using their superior speed over open ground. The Hare Preservation Trust has prepared useful material on how farmers can increase their value of their land for hares, by leaving areas of grassland and crop stubble free at critical periods.

Swift and decisive action on hare hunting, combined with effective action on habitat loss through ELM and BNG, could help turn things round for the hare. 2021 seems an appropriate year for this to happen. Hares have long been viewed as a sign of spring, and of renewal (see the Mad March Hare). As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with a renewed appreciation for nature, what could be a better way of showing it than by increasing protection and support for these living symbols of hope?

Let 2021 be the year of the hare – may they, like happy thoughts dance, into brighter times.

Matt Browne is Advocacy Lead at Wildlife and Countryside Link

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.