Hares are a much loved iconic symbol of the English countryside but have become increasingly rare, especially in Western regions where their numbers may even be locally extinct.
Brown hare populations have seriously declined by an estimated 80% from 4 million hares a century ago to around 750,000 today. This is due to a change in agricultural practices where hay meadows, a favoured habitat for hares, have been largely replaced by silage production meaning more cuts in a year, which also means concealed leverets- baby hares are killed in farm machinery. They do not have burrows to escape to, unlike rabbits.
Another important reason for their decline is because around 390,000 hares’ are shot each year leaving tens of thousands of leverets to starve to death alone waiting for their mothers to return. Shoots are commonly organised in February and March which is the peak breeding season.
( Research has shown that by February 65% of sampled female hares were pregnant and by the end of the month, 50% had given birth and were lactating.)
A Species Action Plan for brown hares was introduced in 1995 by the then government which aimed to double spring numbers by 2010. This target has not been achieved.
We campaign for a close season for hares to be introduced In England And Wales as soon as possible. In our opinion, a close season will bring England into line with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most of mainland Europe who already has close seasons for hares.
It will help meet government objectives and targets to increase hare populations.
It will stop the killing of many thousands of pregnant and nursing females and therefore prevent the suffering and eventual death endured by tens of thousands of dependent leverets, recognised by DEFRA as a huge animal welfare issue.
Only a legally binding close season can offer real protection for hares during their breeding season.
It is vital that a close season for hares is introduced as soon as possible by the Westminster government and we urge the public to bring this issue to their MPs attention. If we can achieve a close season for hares, we can help protect and increase vulnerable hare populations, who need our help now.
Protection for hares in England during their breeding season
England is fortunate to have two species of the hare that call it home. Sadly, numbers of both brown and mountain hares have suffered drastic declines over the past century, a fact recognized by their inclusion in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and by the introduction of a Species Action Plan for brown hares in 1995 which aimed to double spring numbers by 2010. This target has not been achieved.
We call for legislation to introduce a close season for hares in England.
In our opinion, a close season will:
- bring England into line with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most other parts of Europe;
- help meet government objectives and targets to increase hare populations towards historic levels;
- stop the killing of many thousands of pregnant and nursing females and therefore prevent the suffering and eventual death endured by their dependent leverets, recognised by DEFRA as a huge animal welfare issue; and
- facilitate law enforcement efforts in terms of reducing illegal poaching and coursing.
However, we are concerned that efforts to introduce a voluntary scheme to limit hare shooting during the breeding season may not attract the support of those who choose to shoot hares at the events that typically take place in February/March each year. Indeed advice from Natural England advice already suggests that hares shouldn’t be shot during this time (see Natural England Species Information Note SIN001), but with as many as 390,000 hares being shot each year, this advice is clearly not being heeded.
Voluntary schemes are also extremely hard to police or monitor, and they offer no opportunity to use punitive measures in order to encourage compliance. In addition, we do not believe that a voluntary scheme would act as a deterrent to those who poach or course hares illegally.
While we welcome any initiative that reduces the level of persecution suffered by hares, we are strong of the opinion that only a legally binding close season can offer real protection for hares during their breeding season, and achieve the benefits listed above.
The Hare Preservation Act from 1892 covers the sale (but crucially not the killing) of hares from 1st March to 31st July. This legislation is clearly inadequate and in need of urgent modernisation. The recently introduced close seasons operating in Scotland identify the main breeding season for brown hares as being 1st February to 30th September (and for mountain hares 1st March to 31st July).