Brown Hare History & Status

Brown Hare History

Brown hare
Credit: Sue Alderman

Hares and their relatives, the rabbits and pikas comprise the zoological Order Lagomorpha. Modern biochemical evidence suggests the lagomorphs have been a distinct lineage for around 90 million years. Since the dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million BP (years before present) it is possible that hare-like creatures were scurrying about the feet of the giant reptiles for 25 million years.

Until relatively recently lagomorphs were confused with rodents and even Darwin made the same mistake. Lagomorphs are unique in having a small pair of secondary incisor teeth in the upper jaw, just behind the main pair. These are never present in rodents and clearly distinguish the two animal groups.

The evolution of the lagomorphs was greatly influenced by the rise to dominance of grasses among the flowering plants during the Oligocene and Miocene periods between 35 and 5 million BP. Vast tracts of prairie land developed in Asia during those times and the lagomorphs evolved to take advantage of this abundant food supply.

The caecum, an offshoot of the gut and well developed in lagomorphs, acts as a fermentation chamber to break down the large amounts of cellulose which grasses contain. The caecum produces soft, lozenge shaped faeces which lagomorphs re-ingest to increase the efficiency of digestion and extract nutrients such as B vitamins. After a second passage of material through the gut the familiar currant-like pellets are produced. This behaviour is known as refection or caecotrophy.

The brown hare evolved in continental Europe, but probably did not radiate northwards before Britain was cut off from the mainland by the formation of the English Channel. If that was so, then the mountain hare is our only native hare species. The brown hare was possibly introduced by the Romans around 2,000 BP, or by an earlier civilisation.

Status of the Brown Hare

Brown hare leaping
Credit: Robert McEwen

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% 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 95% 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 whilst 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.

Brown hare
Credit: Russell Miles

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.

Hares are renowned for their phenomenal powers of acceleration to 45mph, yet have a habit of ‘sitting tight’ to the ground when a predator approaches. This makes them vulnerable to being killed by farm machinery. Thirty dead hares were once found in a carrot field which had been sprayed with pesticide. They had ‘sat tight’ while the spray boom passed overhead and ingested the poison when they licked themselves clean. Many leverets too are killed by grass mowing machinery in silage fields as they wait for their mothers to return at dusk to give them their single daily feed. Increased stock density in fields and increased movement of stock between fields disturbs hares in their daytime ‘lying up’ sites. This may cause them to move to fields destined for silage cutting.

Despite its decline, the hare is the only game species in Britain which does not have a shooting close season. Large, organised shoots in East Anglia during February and March can account for 40% of the entire national brown hare population. And since the breeding season is well under way by February, orphaned leverets are left to die of starvation. Hares do have a remarkable ability to recover from such slaughter but the welfare implications of these shoots are clearly enormous.

Hares do have a measure of protection through the Hares Preservation Act 1892 which prohibits the sale of hares or leverets between 1 March and 31 July. Hare must not be on the menu in restaurants during this period. The legislation only applies to British hares – imported hares are exempt.

In the mid 1990s concern at the brown hare’s decline led to a government Biodiversity Action Plan which had among its aims a doubling of the brown hare population by the year 2010. Recent research at the University of Bristol suggests this target is unlikely to be achieved by habitat management alone and measures need to be taken to reduce hare mortality. Hare pregnancies from every month of the year are now on record and this trend may become more typical as global warming becomes a reality. The HPT believes Protected Species status for hares would benefit their conservation and welfare – see Campaigns for further details.