Species Biodiversity Action Plans (Summaries)

Species Biodiversity Action Plan -Brown hare

Common name: Brown hare
Scientific name: Lepus europaeus


Brown hares were probably introduced to Britain in Roman times, and are noe widespread in lowland England, and are found on farm and grazing land across much of Scotland. However, they are missing from parts of north west Scotland, and in upland areas of both Scotland and central England they are replaced by mountain hares.

Brown hares have also been introduced to Northern Ireland in recent times, where they are in competition with the indigenous mountain hare population.

Brown hares live in very exposed habitats, and rely on on acute senses and great speed (70kph, 45mph) to avoid predators. They do not dig burrows, but instead make a small depression amongst the long grass (a form), and spend mosty of their time in or near to it, only moving out to feed in the open at night. Breeding occurs between February and September, with a single female having 3-4 litters of 2-4 young per year. The young (leverets) are born fully furred with their eyes open, and are left by the female in forms a few metres from their bith place, gathereing once a day (at sunset) to be fed. This avoids alerting predators (particulary foxes) to the presence of young.

The brown hare generally has a head and body length in the range of 520-595mm, a tail length of 85-120mm, and an average weight of between 3 and 4kg. It is also recognisable by its very long, black tipped ears and large powerful hinf legs.

Legal Protection

Brown hares are given little legal protection, because:

  • They are game animals that can be managed by farmers and land owners.
  • They are a minor pest that can damage crops.

Current Status

The Brown hare population has undergone a considerable decline since the early 1960s, although it may have stabalised over the last ten years. The current population is estimated to be between 817,500 and 1,250,000.

Threats and Issues

  • Conversion of grassland to arable - arable land provides little food in late summer and autumn.
  • Loss of habitat diversity in the agricultural landscape - a diverse landscape provides year-round grazing.
  • Changes in planting/cropping regimes - for instance the move from hay to silage, the autumn planting of cereals and the use of break crops instead of grass leys.
  • The use of farm machinery - causing direct mortality, particularly of leverets.
  • Increased use of herbicides - causes direct poisoning and reduces food supplies in the form of weeds.
  • Increased fox numbers - due to a reduction in the number of gamekeepers and farmers actively reducing numbers.
  • Disease - local outbreaks (eg coccidiosis, yersiniosis and European brown hare syndrome) may impact on numbers.
  • Wet springs - may have a negative impact on breeding success.
  • Hunting, coursing and poaching.

Objectives (as pertinent to agriculture)

The national species action plan specifies the following objective:

  • To maintain and expand existing populations, with the aim of doubling spring numbers in Britain by 2010.

Conservation Advice

The following summarises a range of techniques thought to be beneficial in light of current knowledge.

1) Habitat protection/creation

  • Ploughing/sowing - the ploughing of stubbles and the weed food supplies associated with them, should be delayed as long as possible prior to sowing spring crops. Reduce use of autumn sown crops.
  • Diversity - mixed farming systems with a diversity of crops (and therefore weeds) should be encouraged.
  • Field size - small fields are generally better for hares than large ones, but in large fields a food supply can be maintained when the crops are too tall to be grazed, by dividing the field using beetle banks or mown grass strips.
  • Stock density - hare densities tend to be highest where stock densities are lowest, so either reduce the stock density in pasture fields, or only have stock in some fields at any one time.
  • Alternative habitats - alternative permanent and temporary habitats can be provided in the form of hegerows, shelterbelts, farm woodland and grass set-aside.
  • Tall grass - it is beneficial to leave areas in which grass can grow tall, but succession to scrub should be avoided by cutting/grazing every few years.
  • Set-aside - a move towards flexible set-aside (particularly in strips around the farm) rather than rotational set-aside allows it to be left in place for two years thereby providing greater benefit for brown hares. If rotational set-aside is to be used, spray off and plough as late as possible.
  • Under-sowing - green stubble acts as a winter food source for hares when spring cereal crops are under-sown with grass seed.

2) Animal protection

  • Farm machinery - farm machinery should be used carefully, allowing time for hares to move away.
  • Hay - hay production will allow hares to breed successfully, whereas regular silage cutting both kills animals directly and leaves them exposed to predators.
  • Herbicides - stubbles should only be sprayed if absolutely neccessary, and then only in the morning when it is dry and not in the evening when hares become active.
  • Other species - where the population of rabbits (competitors) or foxes (predators) are particularly high, consider controlling those populations.

References and Further Information

British Agrochemicals Association. (1997). Arable Wildlife: Protecting Non-target Species. The British Agrochemicals Association, Peterborough, UK.

Flowerdew, J.R. (1997). Mammal Biodiversity in Agricultural Habitats. In: Biodiversity and Conservation in Agriculture: Proceedings of a Symposium held at The Stakis Brighton Metropole Hotel 17 November 1997, (Ed. Kirkwood, R.C.), pp. 25-40. British Crop Protection Council, Farnham, UK.

The Mammal Society. (1997). Fact Sheet No. 5: The Brown Hare Lepus europaeus. The Mammal Society, London.

UK Steering Group. (1995). Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report, Volume 2: Action Plans. HMSO, London.

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