Northern Ireland

Irish hares fall foul of eco trap

Irish hare
Image caption In danger: modern farming methods could be a death sentence for the Irish hare

Manicured fields and modern mowing techniques are the enemies of the Irish hare, according to new research.

The decline in the Irish hare population is almost certainly linked to modern farming methods, researchers at Queen's University, Belfast found.

A team, led by Dr Neil Reid, Quercus centre manager, found that hares need a patchwork of grassland for feeding.

They need tall uneven vegetation, such as rushes, for hiding and sleeping.

"Hares may mistake the tall grass of silage fields as a good spot for lying-up and giving birth," said Dr Reid.

"Silage is harvested during the peak period when leverets are born in late spring and early summer and the machinery used may trap and kill young hares, driving local population declines year after year.

"Basically hares have fallen foul of an ecological trap."

The researchers tagged a population of hares in south Armagh with radio-transmitters, allowing them to track their every move.

They followed the animals day and night for an entire year to see how they changed their habitat preferences.

'Silage trap'

The researchers found that during late spring and early summer, the hare increased their use of long grass which is destined to be cut for silage.

Dr Reid said fields were often mowed from the edge to the centre. But if farmers switched and mowed from the centre to the edge, this might give the young hares a chance to escape.

"Adopting 'hare-friendly' mowing regimes, similar to those adopted to minimise the impact of harvesting on ground nesting birds, may help mitigate the effects," he said.

"Unfortunately, leverets tend not to run so it may not work, but it is worth testing."

The new Northern Ireland Countryside Management Schemes (NICMS), implemented by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard), now includes a specific measure to target the Irish hare called the "delayed cutting and grazing" option.

Farmers who sign up will receive payments for postponing the cutting of silage until after 1 July and for maintaining rushy field margins.

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