Conservation of European hares Lepus europaeus in Britain: is increasing habitat heterogeneity in farmland the answer?
Agricultural intensification has had dramatic effects on farmland biodiversity and has caused declines in many taxa. Habitat changes are thought to be the main cause of the decline in numbers of European hares, Lepus europaeus, throughout Europe. In Britain there is greater potential to increase hare numbers in pastural landscapes than in arable landscape. Hares in pasture have lower population densities, poorer body condition and participate less in breeding than in arable habitats. We aimed to investigate habitat selection and home range size in a mainly pastural area in order to reveal why the habitat is suboptimal, and how it could be managed to benefit the species. A seasonal radio-tracking study was used to determine the importance of heterogeneity at the between- and within-habitat scales. Habitat selection by active and resting hares was quantified. Selection was investigated by categorizing habitats by type, and by structure in terms of vegetation height. Mean home range size was 34 ha. Winter and spring ranges were larger than summer and autumn ranges. Hares selected fallow land and pasture grazed by cattle in preference to arable crops throughout the year, except during the winter when crops were suitable as forage. Pasture grazed by sheep was avoided in all seasons but winter. Heterogeneity at the between-habitat scale was less important to hares than heterogeneity at the within-habitat scale in the pastural landscape studied. Hares selected habitats with taller vegetation during the spring and summer. Many of the habitats selected were heterogeneous in structure mainly due to cattle grazing, and hares avoided short homogeneous vegetation in all seasons. Hares are more likely to be limited by habitat in terms of cover than food in these landscapes. Synthesis and applications. Increasing habitat heterogeneity at the farm scale may benefit hares, especially in highly homogeneous, intensively managed landscapes. However, managers of pastural farmland should aim to increase habitat heterogeneity at the within-habitat (or within-field) scale in particular, to provide better cover throughout the year. Agri-environment schemes should target the regeneration of heterogeneity in pastural landscapes, by encouraging changes such as an increase in fallow land and a reduction in livestock density. Such shifts in management are likely to benefit both hares and farmland biodiversity in general.