Adam reflects on the changing face of a once popular winter sport: hare shooting
Thirty or so years ago, hare shoots were major events in the calendar. I played roles from frequent minor walk-on to very occasional centre-stage stardom – depending on venue, circumstances and a chunk of luck – but, just like the vermin shoots that once pulled in equally large numbers later in the spring, such days seem to have lost their attraction. A major reason is that hare numbers have dwindled, though not through over-shooting.
That’s not to say the shoots are entirely a thing of the past. Some, I know, are still held, if only to limit the options for visits from the free spirits of the coursing fraternity, but many have changed from the large-scale social get togethers of the 1960s to the 80s that I remember, to commercially sold days for smaller teams of Guns. One shoot where I once joined the annual cull, for example, now regularly sells one or two days to a team of eight Guns from Belgium who thin out a couple of dozen ‘sallys’ and enjoy what, for them, is exceptional sport, while the farmer involved makes a nice little earner on the side.
But back in the day, as I say, hare shoots were eagerly awaited events, usually held in February and early March. The theme was as much social as pest control, with keepers taking the chance to unwind after the end of the season, along with beaters pleased for the chance to carry a gun instead of a stick. And this too shows how changing attitudes have affected the scene that I remember. Then, most cock shoots were smaller affairs, entirely restricted to ‘cocks only’ and with a lengthy ‘lunch’ in the local as part of the day, so while nobody would deny that such days were big occasions, the later hare shoots were what most beaters looked forward to. Today, what’s on offer at the end of the season is a full day or even two or three days’ shooting both cocks and hens – and that is what motivates a fair percentage of beaters who spend most of the winter tapping bushes.
Whatever, back in the days I’m talking about, the magnet was the huge numbers of hares that could be accounted for at venues like Laverstoke in Hampshire and Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire and many a long stretch of farmland between. Then hare numbers began to dwindle, initially due to the severe effects of paraquat-based herbicides such as Gramoxone (since banned) on leveret numbers, but more recently from the increasing pressure created by the dramatic rise in buzzard numbers. These once lazy scavengers are now more than happy to lunch off a young hare, whose only protection is to stay motionless and thus all too easily fall prey to the pinpoint vision of these large raptors. Worse still, I can’t help but feel sure that red kites, whose numbers are also rocketing and are currently scavengers, will follow in their wingbeats before
‘The dairy farmer whose herd grazed the grassland knew there were hares about, but as to how many, he had no idea’
Brown hares are recognisable by their golden-brown colour, pale belly and white tail