THE LAUGHING BADGER Hares on run from declining native habitat
IF I had the inclination, I could leave the gallery every morning and within ten minutes walk shout hello to a number of brown hares, but just knowing that they are around is good enough for me.
I also count myself as very lucky, actually uber-lucky, because within half an hour’s walk I can doff my cap to mountain hares as well.
During the late 1800s there were about four million brown hares in Britain. But recent surveys show the brown hare has declined by more than 80 per cent during the past 100 years and the decline is ongoing. In some parts of Britain, such as the south west, the brown hare is almost a rarity and may even be locally extinct.
The reasons for this decline are not entirely clear, but intensification of agriculture has certainly been a major factor.
Hares do not hibernate or store appreciable amounts of fat in their bodies and so need a constant food supply throughout the year. This can only be provided by landscapes rich in biodiversity.
Their ancestral homes of past aeons provided a diversity of grass and herb species maturing in succession throughout the year.
Agricultural landscapes, including traditional hay meadows and crops grown in rotation, provided similar diversity in relatively recent times. But 95pc of hay meadows have been lost since the Second World War.
Hay making has largely been replaced by silage production which is more profitable and less dependent upon weather conditions.
Grassland for silage production tends to be sown to a single species, resulting in landscapes poor in biodiversity.
This might explain why hares are now particularly scarce in western areas where dairy farming predominates. They now fare better in the arable ●● areas of the east, giving a marked east-west divide in their national population. Other changes in the pattern of land use have not been helpful to hares. Autumn sown cereal crops show better yields than those sown in the spring owing to the longer growing season available before harvest. More winter cereals are planted than ever before, so while hares have an abundant food supply between November and February, the plants then become unpalatable.
In the absence of spring sown crops, hares 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, with grasses predominating in the winter and herbs in the summer, but 150,000 miles of hedgerow have been destroyed during the past 50 years – depriving hares of this source of food and shelter.
Larger fields containing single crops also mean hares have to travel further in their effort to maintain continuous grazing.
So, without giving you a sat-nav destination for your own sightings of brown hares, do the maths, a bit of research, weigh up the terrain, and find your own little bit of furry joy.
Brown hares are becoming a rarity in some areas