WE were out and about just after dawn to do the first of our brown hare transects, tramping around the boundary of Haigh Plantations.
The weather was perfect to start with but five hours later just as we were finishing it started to pour down. We had high hopes for recording some hares as the same areas we were going to survey had held good numbers about fifteen years ago. Unfortunately for the hare the landscape had changed dramatically in that fields that were once used for crops or hay and silage now held livestock or horses. The problem with the change of land use is that the habitat suitable for hares has now vanished. The brown hare’s prime habitat need is open grassland, with woods, hedges or shelterbelts for resting-places during the day. Unlike the rabbit, the hare is solitary and does not dig burrows, but instead it lives entirely above ground.
The resting-place is known as crouch or “form”, which can be a shallow, dug out, depression in open fields or under cover of long grass, scrub, or hedgerow. Predominantly nocturnal, but sometimes moderately active during the day, activity extends into mornings, particularly in summer. If disturbed, it lies perfectly still, hoping to escape notice. If an enemy comes too near, however, the hare leaps up and runs away at speed, tail held downwards.
It is built for speed, with its long hind legs and sleek body, and can reach 35 miles an hour! Diet consists mainly of herbs and grasses, wild species being preferred over cultivated species when available. Hares and rabbits eat large quantities of plant material and so their digestive system is specially adapted to cope with this. During the day they produce soft faeces (droppings) which they then eat.
This means that the food in these faeces is digested a second time, extracting more nutrition from it. Also, the faeces contain bacteria which help to break down other foods in the stomach. During the night, hard, round faeces are produced. In harsh winters such as the one we have just had and snow makes grazing difficult brown hares will tear bark from saplings.
These changes in agricultural have been linked to the decline in brown hare numbers. In particular, the loss of mixed habitat, a greater reliance on silage cutting, the change from spring sown to winter-sown cereals, and the application of herbicides have had a significant and cumulative impact.
The greatest impact locally though has been the introduction of livestock to the fields that were once the perfect habitat for hares. Disease and predation have also caused localised population crashes. The disease coccidiosis affects young animals in autumn and yersiniosis affects adults in winter. Foxes heavily predate leverets.
Road accidents are also a common cause of fatality, especially in late summer and autumn.
Five hours later and we had not seen a single hare! Not good news, we will carry out another survey in a couple of weeks to see if anything changes.