Working on a mixed farm with a mosaic of arable cropping, tussocky grassland, marshland and hay meadows I am lucky to be able to see a wide variety of species, although I would love for wildlife abundance to be still greater, a difficult prospect when wildlife is under threat from so many angles. Hares have particularly taken to one of the sheep fields and to the sea buckthorn orchard on the farm and I regularly spot them in between the rows or squatting down amongst the sheep, especially in the early evening. Then, when they see me, all of a sudden their athletic hind legs will roar into action and they spurt across the field, at speeds of (potentially) up to 50mph. Their iconic boxing and their emblematic brown fur with white underbelly never ceases to draw the eye. Hares are certainly one of my favourite mammals in Britain, but all is not well, and I fear that in a few years the population may perish.
This fear is based on the evidence of a spate of recent mysterious deaths in East Anglia, leading scientists to believe that Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) or Myxomatosis has spread to hares in Britain. This follows on from a recording in the Veterinary Record in 2014. It’s not as if the population is in great health anyway, with Suffolk Wildlife Trust stating that the number of hares has fallen by 80% over the last century, due to all year round hunting and illegal hare coursing. If myxomatosis has spread to hares then it could wipe out the whole population in a matter of years. After all, the crisis in the 1950s wiped out around 99% of the rabbit population. When will we learn that actions have consequences?
I agreed with Stephen Moss when he wrote in the Guardian last month that the idea of the British countryside without hares is, quite simply, unthinkable. For generations they have been associated with magic, portrayed in a myriad ways through cultural practice and even used as an emblem for a particularly fine brewery in the west country. Hares are among the best sprinters in the mammal world, with long legs enabling them to gain speed quickly from a standing start. It is partly due to this natural advantage that some of the worst examples of human beings are interested in them. Hare coursing has been illegal in England since 2005 but this doesn’t stop a cruel minority from undertaking it. The thought of it disgusts me.
With this issue, like so many others in the conservation realm, I feel helpless, which is frustrating. We can but wait and see what rolls out and hope that science can get on top of it before it gets out of hand. You, dear reader, will most probably understand my fascination with hares and my sadness at the thought of a Britain without them, but do the majority of others think this way? Have most people actually seen a hare in the wild? Have they experienced the sheer wonder that comes in seeing them race into the distance? Without such experience how can they be missed and therefore how can we work to protect them, and other species?
In a rather sombre article in the latest issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, broadcaster and campaigner Mark Carwardine raises an important and telling point. Huge numbers of people in the UK are members of conservation organisations (around 4.5 million of us. The RSPB alone has 1.2 million members) and yet Britain is distinctively barren of wildlife when compared to other countries. The UK’s Biodiversity Intactness Index, which estimates the average abundance of originally present species, is the 29th lowest out of 218 countries. For me, this point says a lot. Do we really care that much? Do our politicians care? Do our businesspeople care? Will we really take steps in the future to improve the situation or am I doomed to be writing disappointing stories for decades to come?
I’ll write it again. The British countryside without hares is unthinkable. I don’t want to live in such a reality. I can but hope that it never comes to pass.
Image credit: see here.