Mid-April: up on the Downs overlooking the Nailbourne Valley, in fields of brilliant yellow oilseed rape, a wild Brown Hare runs down the track between the stems. For a moment, just long enough to allow us to see it clearly, it pauses to gather breath in a shaded section of the field.
Brown Hares are members of the rabbit family, but, unlike rabbits, they live above ground in grassland or heathland if they can find it, or otherwise in the open fields of the arable farm. Mostly nocturnal, they will forage at night and rest in a shallow hollow or ‘form’ during the day. With running speeds of up to 45 mph they are this country’s fastest land mammals.
In the latter part of the 19th century there were thought to be about 4 million Brown Hares living in the grasslands and hay meadows of Britain, but recent counts indicate their population has declined by around 80% (1). This is largely due to the loss of grassland habitat and the modern intensive methods of our farmers. The Hare is almost extinct in some of the dairy farming western counties of Britain and is now seen only occasionally here in the countryside around Bridge and the Nailbourne Valley, possibly because we have an abundance of buzzards and foxes.
The stability of Brown Hare numbers across the country is further hampered by the, so called ‘sports’ of shooting, which is still legally permitted, and Hare coursing, which is illegal, but still popular in some parts of the country. So who kills Brown Hares and why? One might assume farmers would kill them because they eat grass and occasionally damage crops on the farm, but it seems farmers may not be the culprits: on one popular online farmers’ forum, every single farmer who contributed said they loved to see Hares in their fields and they weren’t bothered how much grass they ate. They blamed ignorant local bullies and thugs with guns for the killing and they wanted no part in it.
Every year in East Anglia, large, organised Hare shoots kill up to 60% (Yes! 60%) of the national population of Brown Hares in one big, obscene, shooting bonanza (2), just for the fun of it. And of course the killing occurs on a smaller scale elsewhere too. There is no ‘close season’ for Hare shooting, it is allowed to go on all year, even through the breeding season, leaving many orphaned young Hares to starve in the form when the mother is killed. This, all for the sake of continuing traditional country sports.
The Hare Preservation Trust, which works for wider awareness of these issues and protection for Hares, is campaigning for a close season from February to September in which the shooting of Hares is banned so that the young have at least some opportunity for life. There may be occasions when Hare numbers need to be controlled by humane means for legitimate crop protection, but BridgeNature.org believes it’s high time we had a total, all year round, ban on killing hares for fun and serious penalties for those who breach it. The modern British countryside should be no place for those who make a sport out of killing.
(1) and (2) www.hare-preservation-trust.co.uk