Habitat associations of European hares Lepus europaeus in England and Wales: implications for farmland management.
Numbers of European hares Lepus europaeus have declined throughout Europe as a result of agricultural intensification. Ecological research to inform agricultural management policy is needed. We aimed to identify agricultural land management practices that may benefit this species, which is of conservation concern and of value as a game animal. A postal survey of farmers was used to investigate relationships between the abundance of hares on farmland and current land management, the abundance of a possible competitor (rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus) and the abundance of two predators (buzzard Buteo buteo and fox Vulpes vulpes). Questionnaires were sent to 3000 farms in England and Wales selected from the annual agricultural census database held by the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the National Assembly for Wales. One-thousand and fifty farmers (35%) responded. Non-respondents were statistically similar to respondents, so the questionnaire data were considered representative of the opinions of farmers in England and Wales. Hares were relatively common on arable farms, especially on those with wheat Triticum aestivum, beet Beta vulgaris or fallow land. They were less common on pastural farms, where the likelihood of seeing hares was increased if improved grass, woodland or, in some cases, arable land was present. The association of relatively frequent sightings of hares with arable land was consistent at four spatial scales (farm, parish group, county and region). Hares were seen rarely where foxes were seen frequently. Hares were generally only hunted on farms where they were common. Hence, records of numbers of hares shot may be used as indices of hare abundance but only in areas where hares are common. Forty-two per cent of farmers believed that hares were declining. Hare numbers were most likely to be increasing on arable farms. Synthesis and applications. Changes in land management that provide year-round cover and forage may make farms more attractive to hares. To benefit hares, pastural farms should have some woodland, improved grass and arable crops; arable farms should have wheat, beet and fallow land.