The Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) is a farmland mammal commonly found throughout the UK mainland. It was certainly present in Britain two thousand years ago. In Scotland and certain localised areas in Northern England a separate species, the Blue or Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus), is also present. In winter its coat turns white. The hares in Ireland are also of a different genus from the brown hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) and are believed to be a sub species of the mountain hare.
The present population of brown hares in Britain is probably in the region of one million, not very different from that of the magpie. However, unlike the magpie, the hare is not often seen as it prefers to hide during the day and to feed during the night. Hares are extremely adaptable and, while they prefer a mix of habitat within a small area, they can be found anywhere in farm, moor or woodland.
The brown hare has been known to breed throughout the year but leverets born in late autumn or winter are unlikely to survive particularly if it is wet and cold. The majority are conceived and born between the months of April and early September.
Population densities of the hare vary widely from area to area. Where predator control is implemented and cover and food available to the hare throughout the year, as in much of the East and South of England, very high hare numbers are sustainable. In Wales and the West Country intensive grass production and the associated higher levels of leveret mortality can result in much lower populations. However, monitoring suggests that populations in the different areas tend to be constant. If the habitat is improved hare numbers can increase rapidly. Understanding the effect of habitat and other variables on hare numbers remains important to the future of the population.
In the late nineteenth century the British population of the brown hare was possibly as high as several million and it remained so in the early part of the next century. A decline in their numbers began during the Great War when many gamekeepers, who had rigorously controlled the hare’s predators, were called to arms never to be replaced. This was exacerbated during the Second World War and the subsequent drive to increase UK food production, the intensification of agriculture and land use and a move from the mixed cropping pattern of small farms favoured by the hare resulted in further pressures for the hare.
The species has proved resilient in the face of these challenges however and from a low in the nineteen seventies the population has shown a gradual increase to the present day. A major contribution in the measurement of this recovery has been the reports of the 90 packs of beagles, harriers and bassets that maintain detailed records of hares seen during each days hunting.
The future of the hare will depend on the importance that we place on its right to survive. The recent import being placed on food security and biofuel production is likely to pose fresh challenges to the sustainability of the hare population in the UK as the drive to increase crop yields intensifies. The hare needs a “champion” in what is an increasingly busy countryside – and that is the principal role of the two associations – the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) and the Masters of Basset Hounds Association (MBHA)