Copyright: The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside
The brown hare can be distinguished from the rabbit by its larger size and its tall and leggy appearance. It walks with a loping gait and runs with a well-developed stride. The large ears, which are longer than the rabbit's, have distinctive black tips and the tail a black upper surface.
The brown hare is not native to Britain but was introduced before the Roman invasion1. It is a long-established mammal that has become characteristic of traditional mixed farming landscapes. It is mainly nocturnal. Partly for this reason, an element of mystery surrounds it and the hare has always featured strongly in myth and literature.
The brown hare is still relatively common and widespread in agricultural areas. However, game bag records indicate a fall in numbers of around 80% during the 20th century.
Main Habitat(s): Farmland (especially land managed for cereals, ley farming, upland pasture); hedgerows; woodland.
Much of the decline in hare numbers has taken place since the 1960s. The rate of decline was 2% per year during the 1990s. Because of the significant decline in the population, it was identified in the UK BAP as a Priority Species. The 1991/2 National Hare Survey concluded that the fall in numbers has been more pronounced in western, pastoral regions than in eastern arable farmland.
The hare receives limited legal protection through the Ground Game Act (1880) and Hare Protection Act (1911).
Hares are still widespread in North West England but probably in decline throughout. There are no figures available for regional abundance but they appear to be most numerous in West Lancashire and the Fylde.
Good information exists on distribution but the lack of systematically collected data make assessment of the population size difficult. However, a marked decline has certainly occurred throughout the county. In less favourable areas, such as east Lancashire, this appears to have happened in the 1970s and early 1980s. Hares may now be completely absent in some areas. In the more suitable lowland plain, a population fall appears to have taken place later, in around the late 1980s, or even early 1990s in the case of the Fylde.
Local strongholds for the brown hare appear to be around west Lancashire and the former mosses of the Lancashire coastal plain. To a lesser degree, the upland pasture fringe of the Forest of Bowland also seems to be important.
Current factors affecting the species
Intensification of farming has resulted in decreased crop diversity, larger fields and the loss of headlands and hedgerows, all of which have 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. 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 result in a shortage of food during the breeding season. In pastoral areas dense stocking rates may cause similar food shortages.
Synthetic herbicides (e.g. paraquat) have been shown to cause hare deaths. The herbicide is ingested either by direct consumption of treated vegetation or through grooming contaminated fur.
The numbers of brown hares taken as part of organised game shoots or legal coursing will be significant in some areas and could be monitored through gamekeeping records. Less easy to quantify would be the impact of shooting by farmers for pest control purposes. Poaching and illegal coursing are another source of pressure on hare populations but, by their nature, are even harder to measure.
In some marginal areas road casualties can be a locally significant cause of hare mortality.
As far as natural factors are concerned, the effects of poor weather (particularly in the spring), predation and disease are significant factors controlling hare populations.
There is heavy predation of leverets especially by foxes. The rise in fox numbers, particularly around urban areas probably has affected hare numbers, as has the reduction in the number of gamekeepers to control fox numbers in the countryside.
Grass sickness (or European Brown Hare Syndrome) is a disease most prevalent in the autumn but its impact on Lancashire populations is unknown.
Current Action / Mechanisms
National Hare Surveys were conducted in 1991/2 and 1998/99. Results from Lancashire were included in the final reports. Records of hares are kept by the Wildlife Trust, and Museums at Fleetwood, Liverpool, Bolton and Towneley Hall, Burnley.
In 1999/2000 the Wildlife Trust and English Nature ran a public 'postcard survey' that encouraged people to report hare sightings.
Countryside Stewardship may be available to landowners to implement habitat measures that would benefit brown hares.
The UK BAP proposes a target to double spring numbers of hare by 2010, but the population size in Lancashire is not known with any degree of certainty
Objectives, targets and proposed actions for brown hare in Lancashire
The Game Conservancy
Trust has published a leaflet called 'Conserving the Brown Hare'.
The leaflet can be viewed online at www.gct.org.uk/brownhare
and aims to provide information for farmers, landowners and local biodiversity
References & additional reading:
1. Yalden, D. (1999) The History of British Mammals. T. & A. D. Poyser Natural History. Academic Press, London.
2. Evans, G.E. & Thomson, D. (1972) The Leaping Hare. Faber & Faber Ltd., London.
3. Harris, S. & McLaren (1998) The brown hare in Britain. University of Bristol.
4. Harris, S., Morris, P., Wray, S. & Yalden, D. (1995) A Review of British Mammals. JNCC, Peterborough.
5. Tapper, S. (1987) The Brown Hare. Shire Publications Ltd., Aylesbury.
6. Temple, R., Clark, S. & Harris, S. (2000) The National Hare Survey. University of Bristol.
Date: April 2001.