The Irish Hare is a creature that has particular resonance with Ulster Wildlife Trust members. As an endemic subspecies of the Mountain or Blue Hare, it symbolises the special nature of our wildlife in Ireland. Originally depicted in the Trust logo, it still features in the name and masthead of our newsletter.
The Irish hare is a medium sized plant-eater (herbivore), measuring up to 50cm long, and weighing between 2.5-4kg. It has a russet brown coat, long ears with black tips and eyes set high in the head, giving a wide field of view. The animal has powerful back legs, longer than the forelegs, and Irish Hares may reach speeds of up to 30 mph and can jump heights of around 2m.
It is considerably bigger than the rabbit, and can easily be distinguished by its loping run over long distances, as opposed to the furious headlong dash of the rabbit. Slightly more difficult to distinguish from the brown hare, it can be identified chiefly by its white tail, shorter ears and more russet coat.
Irish Hares feed mainly on a variety of grasses, but depending on the habitat, sedges, shrubs such as heather, thyme, bilberry and even shoots from certain trees may play an important part in their diet. Hares will also venture onto the foreshore to feed on sea lettuce and other seaweeds.
They feed mostly at night, resting during daylight hours in a scraped or nibbled hollow or “form”, although there are records of hares using rabbit burrows, crevices in rock and other shelters for refuge or lie-up sites.
The Irish Hare is found from seashore to hilltop, mainly in open country. It occupies many different habitats: unimproved and semi-improved pasture, expanding into adjacent improved pasture; upland habitats including heather-dominated heath and bogs; coastal habitats including dunes, coastal strips and seashore. This species can also occur on golf courses and airfields.
Hares seem to avoid areas of improved grassland dominated by rye-grass species.
Historically widespread and common throughout Ireland, the Irish hare has undergone substantial decline in the last 10-20 years. Estimates indicate that the present Northern Ireland population may be as low as 8250. Population levels may have fallen to critical levels in some areas. Small populations of the introduced brown hare Lepus europaeus (L.) are believed to be in Northern Ireland, but it is not clear if these are having a negative effect on the native Irish hare.
The Hares’ problems mostly involve habitat, food and shelter loss. They need a varied diet of herbs and grasses, low levels of disturbance and adequate shelter for lying up during the day. Intensification of agriculture has pinched Hare distribution to the absolute margins, and in the uplands, expansion of sheep grazing has added to the Hares’ woes.
On top of all this, the Irish hare is still a quarry species for hunting, and can be legally coursed with dogs. While possibly a minor element in the species’ long term decline, this may prove to be the final straw for some of the more isolated populations.
Other threats include:
· Increased levels of predation particularly from foxes, crows and magpies especially affecting leverets.
· Over-hunting due to illegal coursing and lamping.
· Increased mortality on roads due to increases in traffic volume and speed.
The Irish Hare is a quarry species and can only be hunted or shot between 12th August and 31st January. Controls governing Hare-coursing include the use of muzzles on dogs.
In October 2003, the Minister for the Environment refused to issue a permit for trapping of hares, and instigated a review of the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985 that would include the possibility of scheduling the Irish hare for protection.
The Irish hare is listed in Annex V (a) of the EU Directive 92/43/EEC Habitats Directive, which determines that a species may be exploited provided that this is compatible with maintenance at a favourable conservation status.
It is also listed as a Priority Species in the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy. A Species Action Plan has been drawn up and is being implemented. In the Irish Red Data book it is listed as internationally important.
A Species Action Plan has been developed for the Irish hare, and is being led by the Ulster Wildlife Trust. This is a blueprint for focussed action by statutory agencies working within their remit to legislate, encourage survey and research and promote knowledge about the Irish hare.
Targets are ambitious, and include maintenance of the existing population, with a demonstrated increase showing by 2005, doubling the present population by 2010 and maintaining and increasing both the area and quality of suitable habitat. Surveys are being carried out at present to determine the current population figures, geographic range and principal ecological factors at the root of the decline. This information will be used to ensure that targeted work can be carried out to turn the decline around over the next few years.
Agri-environment Schemes for farmers, such as Environmental Sensitive Areas (ESAs) and the Countryside Management Scheme (CMS) can make an important contribution to the maintenance and enhancement of suitable hare habitat.
Public awareness has been raised through development of leaflets, Irish hare features at agricultural shows, and by the holding of a conference in November 2003 dedicated to sharing knowledge of the hare, its threats and its ecology.
What You Can Do!
If you see an Irish hare, contact the Ulster Wildlife Trust and let us know when and where you saw it, preferably including a six figure grid reference.
If you are a landowner or farmer, the following activities would be beneficial to the Irish hare.
· Maintain varied grass species in pasture
· Reduce dominance of ryegrass species (Lolium spp.)
· Defer cutting of grass – to reduce leveret mortality
· Reduce stocking levels of livestock; notably cattle and sheep
· Reduce application of Nitrogen based fertilisers that stimulate competitive grasses.
· Manage hedgerows for biodiversity
· Maintain habitat variety, with plenty of cover.
For further details on these and other endangered or threatened species, visit the National Biodiversity Network website, the Ulster Museum website or the Biodiversity Action Plan website.