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Research shows that the fringes of fields are vital for the survival of hares

22/11/2012 16:12:59
photography/2011 comp/mammal_hare_denness

Award winning photo of a brown hare by Peter Denness

Hares Live Life on the Edge

November 2012. Brown hares have declined in Britain by as much as 80 per cent since the 19th century due to the intensification of farming methods, and now ecologists are working on ways of conserving their numbers.

A team from the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences (CEMS) on the University of Hull's Scarborough campus and the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) have looked at how hares use fields, field margins and small blocks of woodland in farmland in North Yorkshire.

Radio tracking hares
By tracking hares fitted with small radio transmitters they found that, especially in large, uniform fields, hares spent most of their time foraging and resting in or near the margins. Where farmers had left broad margins, sown with grasses and wildflowers, hares used these in preference to other habitats, even if they only represented a very small proportion of the entire area. The team's research shows that managing small areas for wildlife in farmland might make a very big contribution to the survival of the brown hare population.

Dr Phil Wheeler, who carried out the study with Dr Silviu Petrovan of CEMS and Dr Alastair Ward of FERA, said: "We know a lot about how changes in farming have affected some of our wildlife, but relatively little about our mammals. This work shows that the loss of field margins may have contributed to the decline in brown hares.

"However, the positive message is that we may be able to support hare conservation by focussing on the edges of fields, rather than trying to change how entire fields are farmed. Farmers get paid for implementing agri-environment measures like developing grassy, species-rich field margins and our work shows that these are beneficial for hares."

Dr Silviu Petrovan, now conservation coordinator at amphibian and reptile conservation charity Froglife, said: "We must now work together with other specialists to see how the positive effects of field margins could be maximised for a whole range of wildlife species."

The research is published this week in the journal ‘Animal Conservation'.

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