Wildlife protected by the Hunting Act: Hares
Hares are a golden-brown colour, with a pale belly and a white tail. The Brown Hare is larger than the Rabbit, with longer legs and longer ears with black tips.
They can be seen bounding across fields using their powerful hind legs to propel them forwards, often in a zigzag pattern.
Adult hares normally live to 3 or 4 years but very rarely can they live much longer.
Habitat and Range
- Hares are commonest in grassland and at woodland edges, but can also be found in farmland and heathland.
- Brown hares were introduced in Iron Age times, from the other side of the North Sea. They are widespread on low ground throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Although they have been more recently introduced to Northern Ireland, they have not spread far. They have also been introduced to the Isle of Man and Mainland Orkney. In Scotland Brown Hares are found on farmland and rough grazing to the far north of the mainland, but are absent from parts of the North West. Brown Hares are replaced by Mountain Hares in upland areas of Scotland and central England.
- Brown hares live in very exposed habitats, and they rely on acute senses and running at speeds of up to 70kph (45mph) to evade predators.
- Hares do not use burrows, but make a small depression in the ground among long grass – this is known as a form. They spend most of the day on or near the form, moving out to feed in the open at night. Though generally solitary, hares sometimes band into loose groups when feeding.
Diet and Feeding
- Brown Hares graze on vegetation and nibble bark from young trees and bushes. Tender grass shoots, including cereal crops, are their main foods.
- In early spring, Brown Hares are at their most visible as the breeding season encourages fighting or ‘boxing’.
- Breeding takes place between February and September and a female can rear three or four litters a year, each of two to four young.
- The young hares, known as leverets, are born fully furred with their eyes open and are left by the female in forms a few metres from their birth place. Once a day for the first four weeks of their lives, the leverets gather at sunset to be fed by the female, but otherwise they receive no parental care. This avoids attracting predators to the young at a stage when they are most vulnerable.
- Foxes are important predators of young hares and where foxes are common there are likely to be few hares.
Status and Threats
- The once common Brown Hare has seen a dramatic decline in numbers by about 80% due to changing agricultural practices affecting its favoured grassland habitats. Shooting and hare coursing have also had a negative impact on populations. Working with farmers and landowners to ensure wildlife-friendly practices, The Wildlife Trusts are working towards a Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, which are good for both wildlife and people.
- Hares are a ‘game’ species and can therefore be shot for ‘sport’, however hares are the only game species that does not get the benefit of a close-season in England. Hare shooting takes place from February, when anywhere from 300,000-400,000 are killed during the season. Hares are breeding during February, so we believe it is cruel and unnecessary to shoot them at this time, as it will lead to pregnant hares being shot, as well as many thousands of leverets (young hares) being orphaned and thus starving to death.
- Around 350,000 hares are killed in England in legal organised shoots each year, including thousands of female hares who are pregnant or nursing dependent young.
- Farmers claim hares are an agricultural pest
In general, that’s not true, as hares prefer to eat wild grasses in winter and herbs during the summer. A scientific report (Harris and McLaren) says that damage to cereal and grass crops is so low as generally not to be noticed. Hares can sometimes be blamed for the damage caused by rabbits, but the light grazing by the hares actually produces a ‘tillering’ effect, which can actually cause additional shoots to sprout and increase crop yield. There can, in rare cases, be some damage to crops like peas, vines and sugar beet, but this is still small scale and in general farmers are not concerned. Hare damage to forests is negligible. Therefore, talk of hares as an agricultural pest is more likely to be an excuse to justify mass shoots.
- Whether or not hares need to be shot at all is open to debate
If they were left to their own devices, their high mortality rate due to disease, agriculture etc would likely keep their population numbers relatively low anyway.But they are shot. So we feel that any shooting must be done within certain guidelines – and shooting pregnant and lactating mothers, leaving orphaned young, is unnecessarily cruel. Care for the Wild are continuing to call for a legally-enforced close-season, starting at the beginning of February and they believe that leaving the protection of hares in the hands of the very organisations that shoot them is neither wise nor acceptable.
Conservation Status and Public Opinion on Hare Coursing
Brown Hares are included on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan ‘Short list of Globally Threatened/Declining Species’. A Species Action Plan was created for Brown Hares with the aim of doubling the population by 2010; in 2011, Defra announced that the plan had failed. They claimed that hare populations had increased, though not doubled – however it’s not sure where the evidence for the ‘increase’ claim came from. The last serious attempt to put a figure on the national hare population was in 1997/98, when the figure was estimated at 730,000. This was 80,000 less than five years previously.
Hare hunting with beagles and harriers used to occur throughout Britain but is now illegal in the UK on animal welfare grounds, as is the hunting of hare and most wild mammals with dogs.
Hare coursing is also an illegal bloodsport, where dogs are used to chase, turn, and catch and kill hares with large amounts of money being gambled on the results.
Hares are still very often poached, particularly with lurchers cross-bred from collies and greyhounds.
Hares are a very popular wild British animal, and are a real treat for any animal lover or conservationist to see.
Information provided by the The Mammal Society, The Wildlife Trusts and Care for the Wild
Reporting Wildlife Crime
The best way to report hare hunting and hare coursing including suspicious hunting behaviour is to call the Police Wildlife Crimeline on 101.
Further Reading & Useful Links
Species Fact Sheet – Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus)
Hare Habitats and How to Identify
Close-Season for Hares FAQs
Birders Against Wildlife Crime: Hare Coursing