150,000 miles of hedgerow has been destroyed over 50 years of farming, cutting off the hare's source of food and shelter
I remember about three years ago, whilst on a run through the Somerset countryside I spotted what I thought was a dog in a field. When it heard me approaching, a lofty creature sprang off into the hedgerow far quicker than I could run; it's cover was blown. It wasn't a dog, but in fact a brown hare, and that was my first and likely last sighting of one in the wild.
In the South-West it's possible that this beautiful creature is now completely extinct, and according to the Hare Preservation Trust the brown hare has declined by more than 80% over the past 100 years.
Hares don't hibernate and rely entirely on biodiverse landscapes for their food but as a result of the intensity of modern agriculture this biodiversity has been lost in many areas across the countryside, playing a big part in the hare's demise.
Now researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Hull and the Open University have been looking into how important crop type is to the preservation of these creatures.
Hares feed on wild grasses and herbs, but 150,000 miles of hedgerow has been destroyed over 50 years of farming, cutting off the hare's source of food and shelter. And with so many farmers planting single crop types, alongside other factors, hares are struggling to find the food they need.
There is hope for this graceful animal, but it relies on a complex understanding of biodiverse planting, a willingness by farmers and landowners to plant a mixture of biomass energy crops, and the subsidies for them to do so.
Dr Silviu Petrovan of the University of Cambridge, has carried out a study showing that the native brown hare may benefit from exotic, non-native crops growing across Britain's farmland. Published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research the new study, funded by wildlife charity People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), shows that the way crops are planted is just as important as to which crops are grown when it comes to the impact on animals.
The research team, when tasked with investigating what effects biomass energy crops might have on the survival of the hare, discovered that certain crops - one of which is the Asian grass also called ‘elephant grass' - provide an excellent habitat when interspersed with other typical cereal crops, wild grasses and herbs. When elephant grass is planted as a monoculture across large areas, however, it has the opposite effect and discourages hares, which will avoid elephant grass as a food source, but use it instead for rest and shelter.
Dr Petrovan says: "As part of a mixed agricultural landscape and planted at the right scale, elephant grass provides many of a hare's habitat requirements in a very small area. We think that hares use elephant grass for cover and then forage around its edges. They also take advantage of the fact that it isn't sprayed with herbicides, so in places there will be quite a rich ground cover of other plants, not unlike a small area of young woodland, which hares will then feed on,."
Scientists point out that planting biomass crops enhances farmland biodiversity and will not further compromise wildlife already facing huge environmental pressures, plus they are positive that it can encourage an increase in brown hare populations.
Dr Phil Wheeler from the Open University, who led the research said: "In some respects, although these biomass crops are alien to the UK, they mimic unfarmed or unintensively cultivated bits of farmland, many of which have been lost as farming has intensified. Our research suggests that for hares, diversifying farmland by planting biomass crops in small chunks might replace something of what has been lost."
One particular reason for the decline is grazing pressure - particularly that of sheep grazing. Dr Petrovan explains that large areas of intensive sheep pasture prove to be poor habitats for hares, though quite the reverse for rabbits.
The solution? Well managed agri-environment grassy field margins, small blocks of woods and some arable crops. Elephant grass can also provide great opportunities for improving farmland for hares and other species but only if it is well managed.
So the question is, will I see another hare in the fields of the Somerset countryside, or will hare populations continue to decline?
At the moment the hare seems to favour the east of the country - particularly the meadows around East Anglia, but its overall decline remains worryingly steady. That said, the biomass crop - with some well thought out implementation across farmlands of the UK - may hold some hope for Britain's fastest land mammal.
- PTES supports projects in the UK and all over the world, funding conservation organisations, scientific researchers and wildlife experts. Find out more at https://ptes.org
Laura Briggs is a regular contributor to the Ecologist. Follow her here @WordsbyBriggs