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  BROWN HARES IN CUMBRIA


This image is a detail from a painting by Martin Ridley.

  • Brown Hares were introduced to Britain about 2000 years ago, possibly in Roman times or just before. The native Mountain Hare was pushed to marginal habitat in the hills of Scotland, with a small remnant population remaining in the Peak District. Although not an endangered species, there has been a 75% decline in Brown hares since 1945, as farming methods have become more intensive and specialised.
  • The Brown Hare is most at home in arable areas where there is a patchwork of small fields with a mixture of grass, cereal and root crops to provide continuity of food at different times of the year. They dislike high densities of livestock and grazed pasture where there is insufficient cover. Therefore, Cumbria is not generally ideal for Brown Hares although they do occur in small numbers throughout the county. Highest concentrations are found in the Eden Valley and on the Solway Plain where the most suitable habitat occurs. Fewer records come from the western coastal plain between Furness and Workington. Most records in Cumbria are of single animals.
  • Hares are nocturnal and unlikely to be seen during the day in autumn and early winter. They rest during the day in "forms" or hollows in long grass, where they digest the night's food intake. The main breeding season is from March to June when hares may be seen together, especially just after dawn and before dusk. Leverets are left unattended in the open - after the first few days they are moved singly into separate forms and suckled only once per day for a few minutes.
  • Numbers of hares fluctuate between years. Breeding success depends on good weather in early summer - wet and cold takes a heavy toll on the unattended leverets. Leverets also suffer heavy predation from foxes and buzzards, especially if the cover is poor. Early grass cutting for silage is another reason why leverets are killed. All of these factors are likely to make life difficult for hares in a county like Cumbria.
  • Hares have large eyes and long ears (with characteristic black tips), enabling them to detect predators early. Their long and powerful hind legs give then a rapid means of escape.
  • Hares have little legal protection and are often hunted as game or to control their numbers where they cause excess damage to crops (more usually in horticulture). Because of the decline brought about by recent farming practices, financial support is available under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to help farmers who have hares on their land. Set-aside land in field corners and 20 metre strips of uncultivated land can provide both grazing and cover. Farmers are encouraged to cut fields from the inside outwards, enabling hares to escape to neighbouring fields.
  • Since 1998 extensive surveying of Brown Hares has been undertaken in Cumbria to determine their distribution and to try to establish whether declines are occurring.