Brown hares used to be thought of as natives, but they were probably brought here two millennia ago . . .
A century ago hares were so common that they could even be found within the City of London. Overall there were an estimated four million, distributed comparatively evenly across the country. Since then, however, they have gone into a long-term decline and today numbers stand at barely 20% of their former numbers.
No one is really sure of the reasons for this, largely because until recently no one bothered to count them accurately. The decline is thought to have begun with the Ground Game Act (1880), which allowed tenant farmers to control them as pests along with rabbits, but it has continued ever since. True, there was a recovery during the ‘60s, but this was probably due to the lack of competition following myxomatosis. Once the rabbit population began to recover the hare’s downward trend resumed and today the breeding population is thought to stand at about 800,000.
Once conservationists noticed the full extent of decline, they became alarmed. As a result, the animals were quickly given high priority on the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan which aims to help species under threat. Unfortunately, there is a surprising lack of information about the species which even extends to their origins. Until recently they were regarded as true natives – unlike the introduced rabbit – but research has now revealed a 10,000-year gap in the fossil record. Now experts believe the animal was reintroduced after the last ice age by either the Phoenicians or, more likely, the Romans.
One might have thought that, living out in the open, it would be easy to study the creatures, but in fact they are difficult to monitor and scientists heavily on Britain’s sportsmen and population trends over the decades are extrapolated from game books. Until recently these pointed to a slow but steady decline, but the preliminary evidence from Bristol University’s latest research suggests numbers may finally be stabilising or even increasing slightly. The most recent comprehensive survey by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council found 60% of the population in arable areas, while pastoral land held 24%, marginal regions just 11% and the uplands held just 5%. Within this there was even more concentration: a fifth of the total population lives in just three counties (Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire), which between them constitute only 5.1% of the Britain’s land area.
The reasons for all this are still barely understood, but changes in agriculture are the most important factor. In contrast to disappearing farmland birds which are faring best in the west, hare numbers are highest in East Anglia. It seems they benefit from precisely those practices which are usually condemned by environmentalists. True, autumn ploughing might deprive songbirds of fallen grain, but winter wheat is ideal for hares which feast on the tender young shoots during the hardest months of the year. Later, however, they move out of the grain fields and into neighbouring pasture or cover crops to give birth to the first of their two or three litters of young. Set-aside can provide this, but pasture – ideally cattle-grazed – is even better. This is because cattle browse inefficiently by wrapping their tongues around clumps of grass, leaving plenty of cover in which the hares can lie up.
This is not the whole story, however: increased predation is probably also important and explains why they reach their highest densities on the shooting estates of Norfolk. These offer the ideal mixed habitats with both cereal and cover crops, backed up with tight vermin control.