5 May 1995

Trust dispels a hare loss myth

HAVE you seen a hare lately? Contrary to recent Press reports they are not disappearing and the Game Conservancy Trust is keen to dispel the myth while advocating sympathetic management to help consolidate hare stocks.

Numbers have been holding steady since the mid 80s, according to GCT scientists, and Dr Stephen Tapper estimates there are between 1m and 2m in Britain today.

The population did drop in the 60s and 70s as farming changed from a patchwork of crops on a three years cereals, two years grass rotation, to blanket crops of four years winter cereals, one year rape, which provides a mass of food for hares in winter and nothing in summer. The decline in gamekeepers and rise in fox populations have been other important factors to affect hares.

At the GCT demonstration farm at Loddington, Leics, which integrates conservation with profitable farming, hare numbers have risen from seven to 70 over a two-year period due to good predator control from April to July and a more varied crop pattern.

"Hares make up 11% of a foxs diet but that 11% could well be the entire hare population on a farm," says Dr Nigel Boatman, head of research at Loddington.

In 1991-92 fields at Loddington were fairly large and autumn-sown arable crops were grown. The following year linseed, winter beans and spring oilseed rape were introduced, dispersed across the farm. In 93-94 field size was reduced with 20m (22yd) set-aside strips across the centre of very large fields and on the sides of others, with the strips sometimes separating two different crops.

The number of hares rose in relation to the game-keeping and crop diversity, while at a control site the hare population remained stable. Good predator control proved crucial.

It may seem perverse to encourage an animal that some farmers will see only as a pest. But if hare numbers are allowed to go into decline, or are just perceived to be declining, they could become a target for blanket protection, including their habitat of open farmland.

"Too much loose talk driven by the animal rights lobby could end up with the hare being treated in the wrong way. It is a game and quarry species and to protect an animal that can be a pest, would be wrong," says Dr Tapper. "Our case is for a stable hare population."

At Loddington, they have successfully encouraged a thriving hare population, to the point where they are now seeing some crop damage. Researchers there are presented with a problem – or perhaps an opportunity. Continental guns pay well to shoot hares on Scottish estates. Perhaps hares could add value elsewhere, too, with a little encouragement.

Tessa Gates