I put a hare up in the Big Field this morning. As usual it took me a few seconds to focus in and decide it was a hare, not a rabbit. Big rabbit? Black tail tip? Keeps going? Must be a hare. Of course by this time it had nearly disappeared over the hill. I tried to jog after it, wellies slipping clumsily on the wet grass, but inevitably it had gone by the time I reached the brow. It was still a thrill - hares are pretty thin on the ground around here.
I like hares. They have a sense of wildness and danger about them. Just like their lagomorphic cousins the rabbits they were first recorded in this country when the Romans arrived - another tasty addition to the menu perhaps? But unlike the rabbits they have never submitted to the indignities of being 'farmed' - their solitary habits and spartan taste in housing have seen to that. While the rabbits settled down to their cosy-but-tame warren lives, the outlaw hares have toughed it out in their forms - simple hollows in the long grass where they can hole up during the day before making night-time raids on our fields and pastures.
Centuries of hunting - outlaws are always hunted - hit their numbers, but what's really proved their downfall has been the loss of their hiding places. Intensive farming over the last 40-odd years has seriously reduced the number of places hares can hole up. Numbers have plummeted by 80% compared to a century ago.
Luckily, I discovered, over a decade ago the brown hare was put on on the list of species which have a government-backed Biodiversity Action Plan, to help restore its population, with a target of doubling its numbers by 2010. Checking out the Biodiversity Action Plan website (which has now been archived) it's heartening to read that the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC) were all tasked to communicate the declines in brown hare populations and:
'Use the popularity of brown hares to highlight the impact on biodiversity of modern agricultural practices and loss of mixed farms.'
Though strangely I couldn't find any up-to-date communications from them on the subject, or for that matter, information on the success of meeting the 2010 target. This may be because I'm not that great at searching for this kind of thing. If anyone out there has better information I'd be pleased to hear it. We all need a bit of wildness in our lives.