We really must do more to protect the magical hare, writes Matt Gaw

Hare today gone 5 seconds later

Hare today gone 5 seconds later - Credit: citizenside.com

The hare is running along in front of us, its flecked haunches and black-tipped ears visible in the headlights. It’s young; still a leveret really; its lean limbs long and awkward. A hobbledehoy, dazzled by the light.

Hare - Margaret Holland

Hare - Margaret Holland - Credit: Margaret Holland

Already driving at walking pace, we slow the car. The hare jinks one way and then the other as if to shake off a predator before veering sharply sideways under a gate and into the darkness.

I always think with a hare you somehow get a sense of the wild. Yes, rabbits may have that wide-eyed, cotton-tailed cuteness, but it is the hare with its gawky angularity, its poise and spring-like muscles that win me over every time.

I know I am not alone. In Suffolk it seems the hare is close to being an emblematic animal. You can’t walk past an art gallery without seeing a sculpture or painting of a hare. Shops are awash with postcards depicting their rangy form silhouetted against a landscape of Suffolk fields or boxing away unwanted amorous advances.

They are an animal close to our hearts. But it is also an animal in decline, with populations falling by an estimated 80% over the last 100 years.

In some ways it is the same old sad story. In short, the intensification of agriculture has led to a landscape that in many places lacks biodiversity. The disappearance of swathes of meadow and grassland combined with an increase in winter cereals mean hares can be without food during the breeding season.

The scrubbing of hedgerows has also deprived them of shelter; something that is particularly important given one of their main defensive strategies – despite their 45mph speed – is simply sitting still.

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But there is another worrying factor at play. Despite being subject to a Biodiversity Action Plan, a measure to improve hare populations in light of falling numbers, the species is still considered to be, well... fair game.

Although the 1892 Hares Preservation Act prohibits the sale of hare between March and July 31, the older 1880 Ground Game Act means they can be shot throughout the year, including in the breeding season.

Pregnant does (female hares) can be shot, as can those that are lactating – even if this means the leveret waiting for its single dusk feed will most likely starve to death. Indeed the hare is the only game animal that does not have a close season.

Every other species; deer, trout, and even birds bred simply to be gunned down, such as pheasants, partridges and grouse, all have a period of time when they can, at the very least, breed in peace. To leave out hare seems arbitrary, outdated and wrong.

In Suffolk, one of the species’ few remaining strongholds, hares are still regularly shot in large numbers by organised shooting parties.

According to the Hare Preservation Society, which is pushing for a change in the law to introduce a close season, it is estimated that between February and March large organised shoots in East Anglia can kill as many as 40% of the national brown hare population. A truly shocking statistic.

But perhaps more shocking still is that the rules which currently govern the shooting of brown hares, rules that shooting organisations insist are sufficient, were drawn up by – yes, you guessed it – the organisations themselves.

To the horror of wildlife groups, the government left the job of drafting a code of practice for “hare management” to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the largest shooting organisation in the UK, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Their work was supported by the Tenant Farmers’ Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Moorland Association, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance (CA). This last organisation went even further, suggesting (somewhat bafflingly) that a close season could lower hare numbers. So, the shooting and the eating has gone on.

Perhaps I should say at this point that I am not arguing against shooting per se – this is not an attack on the CA’s “rural ways of life”, if this really is the phrase best suited to sum up various ways of shooting and chasing things in the name of sport.

Nor am I saying that “pest control” should not take place. Farming is undeniably important and if there is evidence that food production is being threatened by an overly large hare population then of course a cull is something that could be considered.

Rather, I’m trying to make the simple point that the controls currently in place to regulate the shooting of this nationally scarce animal are not adequate or ethical. Furthermore, if we really do care about the future of this magical animal then it is an issue we urgently need to take up.

See more from Matt Gaw here

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