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Look out for the brown hare

Brown hares © DarinSmith.jpg

The brown hare is an iconic species of arable and grassland, although it can be spotted in open country and woodland. They are easy to tell apart from rabbits, being about twice the size, with golden-brown (not grey) fur, a short black and white tail and white underparts. They have large, black-tipped ears and long, powerful hind legs. They stand about 52-59 cm tall and weigh around 3-4 kg.

The mating season between February and August is the best time to see them. The ‘spring madness’ behaviour from which they got the name Mad March Hares, is actually the Sallies (females) fighting off the amorous advances of courting Jacks (males).

Unlike rabbits which live in burrows, the hare lives its life entirely above ground. During the day it rests and sleeps in a ‘form’, which is a shallow depression in the ground that just fits its body when crouching low.

Sadly brown hares have suffered a national decline of 80 per cent over the past 100 years as a result of changes in agricultural practices and land use. In Wiltshire, they can still be widely seen. Hares are abundant in the Upper Thames and Cotswold Wildlife Park regions; they were well surveyed in the Braydon Forest, and may be widespread across the Marlborough Downs and Salisbury Plain. With only a few survey records, we really need your help in carrying out new surveys and sending us your sightings.

What to look for

Brown hare © David Kjaer

Forms: the shallow depressions in the ground where hares rest (and leave their kits).

Latrines: similar to rabbit, but pellets are large, not associated with burrows and individually identifiable unlike deer.

Feeding signs: show a clean cut through vegetation (easy to recognise on woody plants) frequently above 6-8 inches from the ground.

Tracks: like rabbits but larger, seen in a Y-shaped print ranging from 11cm -15cm in length. The hind feet appear much bigger than the fore feet. They have four toes; and a fur covered sole which makes the print much larger than a rabbit’s.

Speed: a powerful animal that can accelerate to 45 miles an hour.

Impacts on the species

In Victorian Britain the hare population peaked at about four million because gamekeepers controlled their main predators, and mixed farming suited their lifestyle. The last estimate put their populations at about 700,000.

In some areas of the country they are thought to be locally extinct and some experts consider the hare’s decline to be the greatest of all British mammals apart from the water vole. Changes in agricultural practices such as converting grassland to arable land and shifts in plant and cropping regimes are probably behind their downfall.

The fox is their main natural predator, but as the hare is a game animal, they have no legal protection from humans. Without a close season they can be shot at any time of year, even when they are breeding in the early spring. All other EU countries have a close season for hares.

The hare’s decline led to the introduction of a UK Biodiversity Action Plan and one aim was to double its population by 2010. This target was not achieved, although numbers may have stabilised. It is also a NERC 2006 (Natural Environment and Rural Communities) section 41 species.

Get Involved

In 2011 the Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre (WSBRC) held only 1,343 records of brown hares on its database. Following a public campaign for people to send in records and efforts by the Wiltshire Mammal Group we now have more than 2,400 records.

A project launched this year by the Wiltshire Mammal Group will link up keen hare spotters with suitable farmland sites to carry out surveys. These will provide a quantitative assessment of the number of brown hares in Wiltshire with a standard and repeatable methodology, establishing a baseline against which future changes of hare numbers can be calculated.

A training session to assign areas to surveyors was held in January and more group activities are planned for later in the year. If you would like more information or to get involved please contact wiltshiremammalgroup@hotmail.co.uk To submit records please go to http://www.livingrecord.net

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