Brown Hare population decline & habitat changes
(Our thanks to the Brown Hare Action Project for their permission to reproduce the following information.)
Brown Hares are generally considered to be a familiar feature of our countryside. However, local gamekeepers noticed a decline in brown hare numbers in the early 1990s and brought this to the attention of academic researchers. A national Brown Hare survey organised by Bristol University (Hutchings & Harris, 1996) estimated that the hare population of between 817,500 and 1,250,000 individuals is probably at best only 20 percent of that present a hundred years ago.
the hare population of between 817,500 and 1,250,000 individuals is probably at best only 20 percent of that present a hundred years ago
They estimated that a conservative figure for 1880 is a mid-winter brown hare population of 4 million hares. Much of the decline in hare numbers has taken place since the 1960s and the rate of decline was 2% per year during the 1990s.
A number of factors have been suggested as contributing to this decline, including:
- farming intensification
- changes in the pattern of land use
- increased predation levels
- increased levels of disease
- climate change
- shooting, coursing and poaching
- road casualties
The resulting decrease in crop diversity, larger fields and the loss of headlands and hedgerows due to land use changes, have all had negative impacts on hare populations.
Crop diversity is important to hares because their nutritional requirements vary according to the season and so they move between crop types.
Crop diversity is important to hares because their nutritional requirements vary according to the season and so they move between crop types. Hedgerows are important daytime lying up sites, particularly for leverets. The shift from hay to silage cutting and the use of faster silage cutters throughout the year has increased direct brown hare mortality. In arable areas, the change from winter to spring sown cereals can often result in a shortage of food during the breeding season. In pastoral areas, dense stocking rates may cause similar food shortages.
These habitat changes have been exacerbated by the reduction in the number of gamekeepers to control fox numbers in the countryside and subsequent rise in fox numbers, which has lead to heavy predation of leverets.
Poaching and coursing are another source of pressure on hare populations but, by their nature, are extremely hard to measure.
There is no conclusive evidence as to the relative importance of any of these factors. However, in view of the different pattern and timing of the decline in different regions of Britain, it seems likely that more than one factor contributed to the change in the size and distribution of the hare population.