Wildlife trusts' appeal to count brown hares in Wales

Brown hare
Image caption Brown hares should be easier to spot on cropped fields when there is snow

Wildlife conservationists are calling on the public to help them count the number of brown hares in the Welsh countryside over the winter.

Wildlife trusts are comparing hare populations on land where habitat conservation work has been carried out, with land that is left untouched.

They hope to learn if historic decline in Wales' hare numbers has been halted.

But country sports fans claim that where buzzards become established, brown hares face a new threat.

The number of brown hares has plummeted by 75% since World War II.

Most conservationists agree that intensive farming methods have reduced the amount of pastoral land and changed the landscape they need to thrive.

The animals have lost out with the conversion of grassland to arable farming, changes to planting regimes and a reduction in the variety of habitats.

Yet the hares' decline appears to have halted, and even reversed, in areas where wildlife-friendly schemes have been introduced.

Up to a third more hares have been spotted on farmland where farmers have left wider grass margins in arable fields, delayed grass cutting when leverets - baby hares - are around and left stubble over winter to provide shelter.

A project by the North Wales Wildlife Trust to boost hare numbers on Anglesey has suggested good results.

Their counterparts at the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales are counting hare numbers across Wales to see if the land management scheme Tir Gofal is having a measurable effect.

Conservation manager Rob Parry said members of the public reporting a sighting of a brown hare was a "bread and butter" way of verifying a species population numbers.

When snow falls, spotting brown hares in open, cropped areas should be easier, he said.

He said: "We know about the long-term trend - there is a continuing decline but the best reason for hope that we've got is that everyone seems to love brown hares and there a lot of people working for their conservation.

Image caption Buzzard attacks are blamed by some for the decline in brown hare numbers in parts of north Wales

"Farmers, who have what it takes to benefit the brown hare population, are moving towards landscape conservation.

"If people report brown hare sightings, it gives us an excellent snapshot of their distribution for this year. The problem is they are so well camouflaged and secretive."

Mr Parry urged people to report hare sightings before the survey finished in the spring next year.

But country pursuits fan Neil Foulkes, 65, of Deganwy, Conwy, claims the local hare population is hit hard wherever buzzards are on the rise.

The retired engineer said in the 50 years he had followed game, he had noticed a decline in hare numbers on parts of Anglesey and elsewhere which he puts down to the resurgence of buzzards.

He said: "When they catch one leveret, they know that there are more. They quarter the ground and their vision is so highly acute they can see absolutely everything.

'Easiest meal'

"Sometimes, working in pairs, they continue until the whole family has gone.

"Hares only survive where game is preserved, where gamekeepers discourage buzzards from nesting."

But the RSBP said buzzards were not the bad guys in the story of the brown hare's decline.

Jeff Knott said: "They are quite capable of taking a leveret. The question is whether they are taking them in such huge numbers that it's having an effect on the conservation of the species.

"All the evidence is that they are not. Buzzards are opportunists, they are looking for the easiest meal they can find.

"I'm most likely to see them by the side of the road picking up stuff that's been run over."

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