Brown Hares in Derbyshire
Stunning photographs and fascinating facts about this elusive creature.
There are two species of hare in the UK and both can be found in Derbyshire. Only one of these is native to Britain - the mountain hare - but even this is not actually native to Derbyshire. It was introduced into the county by the Victorians for sport. The number found in the county is still good and the sight of a white hare bounding away across the peaty tops of the Dark Peak isn't rare.
The other species of hare is the brown hare. These are larger with longer ears and are far more anchored to the gentler agricultural lowlands, although it isn't unknown for a few to stray into the realm of the mountain hare in the Dark Peak. Brown hares are not, as many people think, indigenous. They were brought to Britain by the Romans as a potential source of food. Its relative, the rabbit, wasn't brought to our islands until a thousand years later, when the Normans introduced them for the same reason - 1066 has a lot to answer for. In a way a walk in Derbyshire can easily give you good views of both species of hare and of the rabbit, yet all three shouldn't really be here.
The brown hare population has flourished in the UK for virtually all of the last 2,000 years since they were established here. An animal of the open fields, their numbers grew as we increased the amount of agriculture and ancient wildwood was cut to make way for fields. This country's past field system with lank grasses roughly grazed intermixed with a variety of crops, suited hares literally right down to the ground. By the time of the Second World War the brown hare population must have been in the millions. However, the changes that have taken place throughout the agricultural world, starting after World War II and reaching their zenith in the 1980s, have wreaked havoc with hare numbers. The last big count totted up about 800,000 which, although it might seem a lot, needs to be considered against the vastly larger number pre-1945.
However, set-aside, an idea that started in the EU, seems to have inadvertently come to the aid of this lagomorph (the group hares and rabbits belong to). Set-aside was introduced to reduce the gross over-production of food, particularly cereals, caused by the bizarre way Europe finances its farmers. Basically, farmers are paid to remove one fifth of their land from crop production. The resulting change, usually to longer grasses, was a godsend for our beleaguered hare population and numbers have now risen to over one million and a target of 2 million by 2010 has been set. Unfortunately set-aside has been taken off the farming agenda and conservationists and the Game Conservancy Council are very worried that the good work of the last decade may be eradicated.
Brown hares have their own action plan, called a BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) which lists suggestions to help farmers farm in a hare-friendly manner. The list is fairly comprehensive but basically suggests how to improve the grasslands, crops and mowing regimes to support hare numbers. Farmers can also gain financial help via the Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Brown hares are best known for their mad March antics where an over-amorous male is rebuffed by the female hare. This can occur all spring and into early summer but seems more obvious in early spring because of the shorter vegetation.
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Hares give birth up to four times per year to between one and four leverets. Unlike rabbits, young hares are born with their eyes open and are fully furred. They are left to rely almost entirely on their camouflage for all but ten minutes per day, with the mother only returning for a few minutes each dusk to suckle. It does seem harsh but it is an effective strategy for an animal that has to survive in open grassland where foxes and buzzards are ever vigilant. The brown hare's life span is about three years and if they make it through their first winter they will usually do well.
We have hunted hares ever since the Romans brought them here. Jugged hare was, and still is, a much relished dish in rural areas. Today we still hunt the animals, mainly by shooting them. Hare coursing, the use of dogs to chase hares as a form of sport, was made illegal in 2004.
In the less intensive farming areas of Derbyshire there are pockets where a good number of brown hares can be found. Generally these are not shot at or heavily poached and it's quite easy to learn how to see them. During the day they lie up in their form, often using the same one repeatedly. They can be spotted most easily at the beginning of spring or in autumn when the vegetation is short. With practice you can get quite close to them. If you want to see hare activity then dawn or dusk is the best time. Find a good spot, put a tree or hedge at your back so you don't break the skyline and wait patiently. Try not to move excessively and wear suitably coloured clothing, though it does not have to be full camouflage. Within a couple of hours you are likely to become entranced by the secret world of this amazing animal.