FRENCH WAYS WITH HARES

 

So much has come on so well in the last weeks, but you suddenly realise that you haven't seen more than a single hare, and that on odd occasions, for a year at least. In north Meath, especially, there have for long been notices on field gates - as mentioned more than once here - "Hunting dogs may be shot" or "No hunting dogs". There may be other causes. Disease? Or has the local population just moved sparring time it was not unusual to see up to a dozen hares throwing themselves around in the bigger rolling fields. And while the trees on one side of the river were small, hares could often be seen lolliping through the grass paths. Now that they are grown, hares, such as there may be, keep away.

Local gun clubs could take a leaf out of the French book, where raising hares as you raise pheasants for release is, apparently common. Last autumn a sporting magazine found the hare situation in many districts to be good, and along the Mediterranean Departments very good. This, the magazine noted, especially where the hare was `managed', and from the context this could mean, in addition to raising them in enclosures, to holding off the shooting until the middle or late October, to limiting bags or even locally to refraining from shooting hares for a whole season.

Raising hares isn't always entirely successful. Official figures show that newly released hares suffer death from predators up to as much as almost sixty per cent. Then there are those killed on roads, or by agricultural machinery.

How much damage to crops results from hares? Young trees may indeed have their bark nibbled. James Fairley wrote some years ago that there had not been much research on their diet. He examined the stomach content of twenty hares shot on the highlands of County Antrim in winter, and it was found that food consisted of 28 per cent heather, 15 per cent bog cotton, 10 per cent other sedges, 44 per cent up land grasses and 2 per cent other plants.

High ground like that is not "optimal habitat for the Irish hare". Where rough land had been turned into agricultural grassland "by surface seeding, liming and fertilising" numbers shot up dramatically. Has anyone quantified the damage that hares might do to agricultural crops? The same French magazine notes that in the area mentioned, the biggest percentage of hares was found in districts where there would be about 10 to 5 per cent cereal crops, among vineyards and on good grassland.