Close-Season for Hares – Q&A

Why do you think there should be a close-season for hares in England?

Hares are a ‘game’ species and can therefore be shot for ‘sport’, however hares are the only game species that does not get the benefit of a close-season in England. Hare shooting takes place from February, when anywhere from 300,000-400,000 are killed during the season. Hares are breeding during February, so we believe it is cruel and unnecessary to shoot them at this time, as it will lead to pregnant hares being shot, as well as many thousands of leverets (young hares) being orphaned and thus starving to death.

“It’s disgusting. There’s nothing more to say other than it’s out of date, it’s irresponsible and it’s immoral.” BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham on the lack of a close-season for hares.

How many hares are there?

It’s difficult to know exact numbers. Over the last 100 years, the population has been reduced by about 80%. There are various reasons for this, principally the change in land-use over that time, plus disease, the use of pesticides, and hunting/shooting.  In 1995, there was a reported 25-49% decrease in hare numbers and range over the previous 25 years. Because of this, brown hares were included on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan ‘Short list of Globally Threatened/Declining Species’.

A Species Action Plan was created for brown hares with the aim of doubling the population by 2010; in 2011, Defra announced that the plan had failed. They  claimed that hare populations had increased, though not doubled – however it’s not sure where the evidence for the ‘increase’ claim came from.

The last serious attempt to put a figure on the national hare population was in 1997/98[1], when the figure was estimated at 730,000. This was 80,000 less than five years previously.

That still sounds like plenty?

Not when spread across the country. Also though, there’s a real difference depending on where you are. In East Anglia, hare numbers are comparatively higher – this is due to the arable land in that area, but also because landowners deliberately allow the hares to thrive – so they can then be killed in lucrative shooting events.

Across the rest of the country, hare numbers are increasingly thin on the ground. The Hare Preservation Trust says that they get reports on the lack of hares in various regions. In the south of England, some areas report that ‘hares haven’t been seen locally for 20 or 30 years’.  Letters to Farmers Weekly in early 2013 have reported the lack of hares in various areas.

But farmers claim hares are an agricultural pest?

In general, that’s not true, as they prefer to eat wild grasses in winter and herbs during the summer. A scientific report (Harris and McLaren) says that damage to cereal and grass crops is so low as generally not to be noticed.  Hares can sometimes be blamed for the damage caused by rabbits, but the light grazing by the hares actually produces a ‘tillering’ effect, which can actually cause additional shoots to sprout and increase crop yield.

There can, in rare cases, be some damage to crops like peas, vines and sugar beet, but this is still small scale and in general farmers are not concerned. Hare damage to forests is negligible. Therefore, talk of hares as an agricultural pest is more likely to be an excuse to justify the mass shoots.

“You can shoot them all year round; you can shoot the does when they are pregnant; you can shoot them when they are suckling the leverets, the young hares, so the orphaned youngsters starve to death. Is that not unnecessarily cruel?” Michael McCarthy, Independent newspaper

So who’s doing the shooting?

Anyone willing to pay good money to do it. A day’s shooting can cost up to £1000 – so for that money, one would expect a good return. Landowners are clearly making good money out of this practice. It is reported that many of the people doing the shooting come from overseas.

Can hares be shot at any time?

In theory, yes, as there is no close-season. A Victorian law is still in existence which restricts the sale of hares during certain months of the year; however this does not impact on the mass shoots, as these are not done in order to eat or sell the hares.

Shoots are guided by organisations such as the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), who recently produced a ‘Code of Practice’ regarding the shooting of hares. We were greatly disappointed that this plan – which the government is happy to accept as standard guidelines for shooters – did not include a close-season.

To be fair to BASC, the plan does advise shooters not to shoot hares from March onwards other than in ‘exceptional circumstances’ to avoid orphaning the young. However, this still allows (in fact, encourages), shoots during February, which is the crux of the matter.

So what is it about February?

We, and other wildlife organisations, believe that February is a key part of the hare breeding season. Research in 1974 showed that by February, 65% of females were pregnant, and that by the end of the month, half of those had given birth to their first litter. That means that a third of all female hares had given birth by the start of March.

In 2004, a report for DEFRA acknowledged that:  “Females do become pregnant in January so a close season beginning in mid-February might be appropriate”.

Finally, the basis for the current focus on March as the start of the hare breeding season comes from the Victorian legislation mentioned above, the 1892 Hares Preservation Act. The ‘hare breeding season’ mentioned at that time – March to July – may well have been accurate then, but with climate change – as shown by the above evidence, the breeding season is now closer to January-September.

Ultimately though, it is clear that tens of thousands of pregnant hares will be killed during the February shoots. The reluctance on the part of the shooting lobby to stop shooting during February can only be accounted for by the lucrative nature of shoots during this month.

“The hare is the only game animal that can be shot all year round, and up to 60% of breeding females are killed each year.” Jonathan Leake, Sunday Times

Any other arguments?

Whether or not hares need to be shot at all is open to debate – if they were left to their own devices, their high mortality rate due to disease, agriculture etc would likely keep their population numbers relatively low anyway.

But they are shot. So we feel that any shooting must be done within certain guidelines – and shooting pregnant and lactating mothers, leaving orphaned young, is unnecessarily cruel.

We will continue to call for a legally-enforced close-season, starting at the beginning of February. We believe that leaving the protection of hares in the hands of the very organisations that shoot them is neither wise nor acceptable.

[With thanks to the Hare Preservation Trust for their help in compiling this feature]

Further reading

General information on brown hares, compiled by the Humane Society International/UK, conjunction with Care for the Wild.

Read our latest news story on the hare campaign:

“I think people would be shocked to know that the people who shoot hares are the ones who get to decide on whether or not there should be a close-season. The government needs to step in, involve wildlife organisations to get some balance, and give these animals a break.” Philip Mansbridge, Care for the Wild

Chris Packham talks about a close-season for hares

Independent article on hares 06.03.13

Sunday Times article on hares 31.03.13

[1] Conducted by Professor Stephen Harris from Bristol University. He had previously surveyed the hare population in 1993/94.