The brown hare is a farmland animal that thrives best on arable ground. It has always been much less abundant on pasture land. It is thought to have originated in the steppes of central Asia and to have spread westward across Europe as forest was cleared for farming in the Neolithic period. The brown hare, however, did not appear in the British fauna until the Roman era.
As brown hares spread into most lowland farming districts they probably displaced the smaller mountain hares (Lepus timidus), which formerly inhabited low-ground areas, just as they do in Ireland today. Only in the uplands or in northern forested districts are mountain hares likely to have held their own. Because of predation, and hunting for food, brown hares were probably never very abundant until the 18th and 19th centuries, when the combination of land enclosure, agricultural improvement and predator control allowed populations to rise. On large well-managed estates, like Holkham in Norfolk, numbers shot peaked in the late 19th century, but the size of the bag at that time may have been related to improvements in firearms and shooting popularity as much as to agricultural changes.
The Ground Game Act (1880) gave tenant farmers the right to kill hares and rabbits on their farms in order to protect their crops. However, during the period of declining farm prices from the late 19th into the early 20th century, this had the perverse effect of encouraging farmers to trap rabbits in large numbers as an alternative crop. In many districts, such as southern Wales and parts of the West country, brown hares appear to have been trapped out of existence at this time.
For centuries, hares were an animal of the chase and both hunting with hounds (beagles and harriers) and coursing with greyhounds had a very long history. These sports, now outlawed by the Hunting Act 2004, killed very small numbers of hares. Currently hares are a minor shooting quarry. Hares are widely famed for their culinary value, but most driven hare shoots are designed to prevent crop damage by reducing the hare population locally. Typically such shoots are organised in response to high hare density, and therefore may not take place every year on a given landholding.
A code of practice for the management of brown hare has been drawn up by the GWCT, CLA, Countryside Alliance, The Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers' Organisation and the Tenant Farmers Association. This code sets out the law and best practice for ensuring an appropriate and workable balance between the welfare and conservation of brown hares, their status as game, and their ability to cause serious damage to crops.
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