The consequences of predator control for brown hares (Lepus europaeus) on UK farmland.
The brown hare Lepus europaeus is a valued game species but also a species of conservation concern owing to its severe decline in abundance on farmland throughout Europe during the twentieth century. Changes in the farmland habitat and predation have both been cited as causative factors. Their relative roles have been unclear, but most conservation action has focused on improving habitat. We analyse data from a sequence of three unique studies (one experiment and two demonstrations) covering the period 1985-2006 in which control of several common predator species was undertaken to increase densities of wild game on farmland in England. Across the three studies, regression modelling of the proportional change in hare numbers between successive years showed that - after site, year differences and harvesting were accounted for - predator control was a significant determinant of hare population change. Where habitat improvement also took place, hares reached autumn densities that were exceptional for the UK and which could sustain substantial harvests. When predation control was stopped, hare densities fell, even where habitat improvements remained in place. This analysis demonstrates that even where farmland habitat is greatly improved, uncontrolled predation prevents hares making full use of its carrying capacity. This helps explain the mixed - and at best modest - success of agri-environment schemes in the UK and elsewhere in Europe to increase hare densities. Game-shooting estates, on which effective predator control takes place, probably have a special significance within the landscape as source areas for brown hares.