National Mammal Week 2020: Day 7: Arable & Horticulture
Stephanie Wray is a biodiversity consultant, whose PhD research into brown hares was completed more years ago than she cares to remember. She lives in the Cotswolds with five elderly and badly-behaved dogs. Here she tells us about brown hares found in arable habitat…
I try not to subscribe to the many superstitions about brown hares but on the first night of October, as I walked my dog before turning in, it was hard not to see them as magical creatures. The maize had been harvested that day and through a light mist settling on the stubble, seven hares were visible in the full moon. Six fed on the short weeds and stray kernels, while one sat bolt upright keeping watch, the archetypal moon-gazing hare.
I’m sometimes asked how to distinguish a hare from a rabbit. While superficially similar, they are very different animals. Hares are bigger, with a body of around 70cm to a rabbit’s 30-40cm, with much longer legs, and longer black-tipped ears. But when you get close, a hare’s face has nothing of a rabbit’s softness. A hare has the sculpted nose of a racehorse and the patrician stare of the Romans who brought them to Britain – even if not, as it seems from recent evidence, for the first time.
The brown hare that we see in lowland England originated on the steppes of central Europe. Fast-moving and with acute senses, hares are adapted to an open environment, so their distribution and spread across the continent has been closely linked to forest clearance and the production of arable land. Whilst hares need open arable fields to provide their preferred food of grass and cereal shoots, they do better in slightly diversified landscapes. Shelterbelts of trees, small woodlands, set aside and fodder strips all help to provide a range of food and shelter. Under intensive farming regimes, hare numbers can fall dramatically, particularly where large acreages of a single, well-weeded, crop are all harvested, leaving the fields empty of food.
The fate of the brown hare is closely linked, then, to the state of agriculture. Increased mechanisation and use of pesticides took their toll on hare populations in the post-war years of the 20th century. More recently, agri-environment schemes and changes in cropping patterns have benefitted them in some areas. As Britain leaves the EU at the end of the year, we can expect further changes as we move from an agricultural system based on direct subsidies to farmers under the EU Common Agricultural Policy to the proposed Environmental Land Management System. This new scheme will pay farmers for delivering public benefits, like managing parts of their land for the benefit of nature. That’s potentially good news for the brown hare as well as the harvest mouse, not to mention skylarks, corn buntings and a range of increasingly rare wildflower or arable weeds.
In well managed farmland, we can see the seasons of the year change through the activity of the hares. In winter, hares move fast over the frozen ground and dig slightly more permanent scrapes called forms to rest in. Come springtime they are at their most obvious, chasing around the newly-sown fields of cereals. Small groups of males follow the females that seem ready to mate and are often boxed sharply away for their trouble. As the crops grow tall in the summer, the hares seem to melt away, eating weeds between the tall stems and grasses in the hedgerows. The young leverets are born wide-eyed and cryptic-coloured, visited by their mother just once a day to feed, blending in until they can run from danger. And now, as we settle into the autumn, whether it’s the crisp and bright version of our dreams or the increasingly damp reality, the crops are harvested and the hares enchant us again.
My aged gundog picked up the scent of a hare and I raised my whistle to call him back, reluctant to disturb the scene, but fearing a (sedate) chase. He inhaled a lungful, looked in both directions, and trotted off following the trail in the wrong direction, away from the hares and home to bed.
How can you help?
I know you are probably bored of Brexit by now, but whichever side of that debate you stood, you clearly care about mammals if you have read this far. Leaving the CAP offers good opportunities for the British countryside, but there are risks too. High export tariffs for British goods, or an increase in low quality food imports from new trade agreements could lead to deregulation as farmers try to compete with food produced to lower standards. Please let your MP know that bending the curve of species extinctions and bringing back biodiversity to our countryside is the most important legacy they can leave in public office.
You can also help us to build our knowledge of brown hares and other mammals by downloading our Mammal Mapper app and recording what you see. You can download it for free from your app store and all who register during Mammal Week will be entered into a draw to win a prize! Read more about Mammal Mapper here
If you don’t have a smartphone you can still record your mammal signs and sightings using our online recording form found here