Lepus europaeus

Range & Status

Brown Hare is native to much of continental Europe, mainly north of the Alps, but have also spread with agricultural habitats as far as Siberia. It was introduced to the British Isles over two thousand years ago and has been introduced to at least eight other countries around the world. In Great Britain it is found throughout, including parts of Northern Ireland, many Scottish islands and the Isle of Man (Harris & Yalden, 2008). However, it has declined substantially, particularly in western Britain where the decline started over a hundred years ago. Hutchings and Harris (1996) have confirmed that this decline has continued. Harris et al . (1995) give a mid-winter, pre-breeding, pre-hare culling season, population estimate of 817,000 for England, Scotland and Wales. The population is at its strongest in south, mid and eastern England, east of Devon and the Welsh border.

Regional Distribution

Historically, this species was common in Cornwall during the 19th century becoming ' local and somewhat scarce' by 1908 (Turk, 1973). Hares were imported into Cornwall during this century and in the late 1950s both Brown Hare and Mountain Hare Lepus timidus were released on Bodmin Moor (Turk, 1961). It is, in addition, now known that this practice has taken place regularly, for many years; with known releases as recently as 2000 using animals taken from Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. This is done on a secretive basis, apparently by the hunting community, making it difficult to ascertain the full extent of the practice (Lord, 2001). Releases have also been carried out, in the last ten years, in west Cornwall by landowners for conservation purposes (Kate Stokes, pers. comm.).

Such releases have obvious implications regarding the true Brown Hare distribution, population size and sustainability, particularly given its status of ' local and somewhat scarce' in 1908. It appears to have a patchy distribution, with notable clusters of records in north-east, south-east and mid-Cornwall, south-west of the Camel estuary, Bodmin Moor, West Penwith and The Lizard. Hutchings and Harris (1996), who organised a national Brown Hare survey, felt that ' hare numbers in Cornwall were so low as to make density calculations very difficult' . Brown Hare is absent from the Isles of Scilly.

Habitat & Ecology

Brown Hare is most numerous on arable farms where cereal is the main crop. High livestock densities will sometimes deter hares from their feeding areas and there is a preference for cattle-grazed pastures. Sheep-grazed fields are avoided except in winter. Hares like strips of uncultivated land in arable fields and such conditions can dramatically increase hare numbers. Woodland, scrub and hedgerows are frequently used, particularly in winter, for resting during the day. Human settlement reduces hare abundance (Corbet & Harris, 1996; Harris & Yalden, 2008).

Threats

The three main causes of mortality are predation (particularly foxes killing leverets), disease and poor nutrition; further losses are caused by farm machinery, road kills and shooting (Morris, 1993). The main predators, Red Fox Vulpes vulpes , have been responsible for taking 80-100% of annual leveret production in England (Harris & Yalden, 2008).

Conservation

Morris (1993) recommends a national strategy for the conservation of this species. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has studied the effect of predation from Red Fox. The Brown Hare is a game animal and can be a significant pest on sugar beet, horticultural crops and young coniferous plantations: hence an estimated 390,000 are shot each year in Great Britain. There is no close season but hares can not be legally sold between 1 March and 31 July each year. Listed (short list, with action plan) as a globally threatened/declining species (BSGR, 1995). At a local level, in Cornwall where hares are scarce, sympathetic landowners could be advised and encouraged to adjust their farming methods through schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship. Due to a suspected decline in Great Britain, Brown Hare has been included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and it is included in the Biodiversity Action Plan list for Cornwall.