The Hares

All coursing under National Coursing Club Rules takes place in open country. The wild brown hares are at liberty on their own territory and the fields are not enclosed in any way which would prevent the hares’ escape. Beaters, in the same way as for game shooting, drive the hares one by one on to the running ground.

Alternatively, as in rough shooting, the hares are put up by the company walking across the fields to be coursed over. The hares are not released from boxes, nor are they caught up afterwards. For centuries the hare remained a creature of myth and mystery but recent research by the Game Conservancy and other naturalists has revealed much of the hare’s very private life.

Three distinct types of hares are common in the British Isles. The “Blue” or “Mountain” hare is indigenous to Scotland and is found on high hills and moorland. Large numbers were moved in the 19th century to Wales, the Pennines, and the Peak District, mainly for sporting purposes, and their descendants still remain. In Winter their coat can turn from brown to white to blend with the snow. The “Irish” hare is similar to the Blue Hare, except that it is found in both lowlands and highlands, and its coat does not change colour.

The Brown Hare is the most familiar type, living on downs and lowland farmland in England and southern Scotland. The Brown Hare is significantly bigger than the Blue or Irish hare, and it is not indigenous. It was imported by the Romans for coursing, and it has flourished as a game species ever since.

All hares live above ground, sheltering in a shallow scrape known as a “form”. They are basically nocturnal, feeding by night on a wide variety of fodder depending on the season; young winter cereals, grass, root crops, vegetables and weeds. During the day they will lie up in their forms in suitable cover like ploughland, stubble, and setaside. In rough weather they will often take cover in woods and shelter belts if available, or on the driest land under the lee of a ridge or high ground.

The famous “boxing” matches and other antics between “mad March hares” are related to courtship. They normally take place between the male “buck” and female “doe”. The doe is only receptive to a mate for a matter of hours on one day during her oestral cycle, and a “boxing” match is normally between a doe resisting untimely advances and a buck. Does also resist bucks low in their local hierarchy, and some bucks fight each other for possession of does.

Gestation lasts some 42 days when the doe drops a maximum of four young, fully furred and open-eyed. The “leverets” are then sometimes distributed by the doe between different forms to increase the chances of survival, and she visits each one in turn to suckle them. In less than a fortnight she deserts them, and the leverets have to fend for themselves. The buck takes no part in the raising of the young; he cannot help feed them nor protect them against predators. Theoretically does can bear four litters a year, but two would be the norm. Hares in the wild rarely live longer than four years.

Hare numbers reached their high point in the 19th century. Victorian farming, with its emphasis on planned rotation of crops, provided ample and varied fodder for the hares. Hares were protected by law, and could only be killed by landowners, many of whom would have preserved large numbers for coursing meetings. Tenant farmers had complained of the resulting crop damage since the 1840′s, and a severe agricultural depression helped to bring about the Ground Game Act of 1880 which gave the tenant control over the ground game on his land. A holocaust was the immediate result in which tenants in a grisly revenge on their masters slaughtered countless hares. Before the Act a hundred days’ coursing were run a year in Scotland; after its becoming law, only three clubs running a total of a dozen days survived.

Hare numbers remained high, however, on estates where they were protected by the landowners, often for sporting purposes like coursing. Game Conservancy research has shown that there was another steep decline in numbers between the end of the First World War and the 1960′s. A key factor was the proportionate decline in the number of gamekeepers employed on estates. Hares suffer considerably from predation, particularly by foxes, and the decline in keepering was accompanied by a growth in predators. A similar trend linking predator increase and decline in hare numbers has been noted throughout Europe in the past thirty years.

The 1960′s saw a brief rise in hare numbers, probably caused by the decrease in the rabbit population due to myxomatosis; (hares dislike sharing the countryside and its grass with rabbits.) This was only a temporary relief, before hare numbers fell again throughout the 1970′s and 80′s. Continual wet weather did not help in the 1970′s; wet weather seems to make hares prone to sickness, and in a wet spring leverets can drown even in their forms.

Modern farming methods, however, were probably the key factor. Increasing monoculture on both arable and grassland, where “wall-to-wall” winter cereals or new grass leys took the place of mixed farming, denied the hare its traditional varied diet. A critical period was late summer. In the past the stubbles left after harvest had “greened up” with weed to provide the hares with fodder as well as affording protection. The new farming saw land cultivated immediately after harvest so that, until the new shoots of the winter cereals broke through, there was little or nothing for the hares to eat. Hares are particularly susceptible to liver disease, but this is only the symptom of the critical problem, starvation, which weakens them initially. Toxic sprays like gramoxone also took their toll.

In 1988 the Game Conservancy noted, “Although it is right to be concerned about the present decline, it must be remembered that hares are still very common animals and indeed in some areas are still regarded as agricultural pests.” Research by the Game Conservancy and Bristol University put the national hare population at anything between 800,000 and 2,000,000, and the Game Conservancy considers that the population has now stabilised.

Where numbers have declined, there is now every chance of encouraging an increase through the application of the conclusions of the Conservancy’s research. The key factors are the control of predators, especially foxes, and sympathetic farming, which provides the hare with fodder and shelter and makes use of friendly sprays.

An example of outstanding success in hare husbandry can be found on Lord Leverhulme’s estate at Altcar, where coursing’s Waterloo Cup was run from 1836 until the week before the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. After the death of the last Lord Sefton in 1973, uncertainty and neglect saw the traditionally high hare numbers on the Altcar estate fall so low that from 1978-80 the Waterloo Cup was not run. In the meantime the Waterloo Cup Committee, with the wholehearted cooperation of the new owner, Lord Leverhulme, his tenants, and keepers, introduced fresh stock from other areas such as East Anglia. This would have had no lasting effect if it had not been accompanied by expert and determined keepering. Also the farming had changed from almost exclusively spring cereals in 1980 to a mixture of winter and spring cereals interspersed with vegetables, root crops and the game crops of the expertly managed shoot. The stubbles left for the Altcar Club coursing in the autumn and the permanent grass meadows of the Waterloo Cup running grounds at the Withins and Lydiate also contribute vital fodder and shelter. Dr Stephen Tapper recorded that the density of hares on the estate increased by a staggering 38.8% between 1980 and 1988. Hares became so prolific at Altcar that there were plans to move some to introduce breeding outcrosses elsewhere.

The League Against Cruel Sports finds itself in a moral dilemma when field sports undeniably guarantee game conservation. This is reflected in its muddled response. The League made wild claims as to the numbers of hares killed in coursing and hare hunting, and yet admitted in a circular to MPs that “we accept that the majority of hares coursed are not killed.” The Game Conservancy’s 1990 Hare Report showed that a coursing meeting temporarily reduces the hare population in the immediate area by an average of 5.1%, and beagling by an average of 2.1%. The Conservancy acknowledged that part of this figure was caused by hares temporarily dispersing from the area and not by kills. In a matter of days these hares return to their original home.

The League likes to pour scorn on the introduction of hares on to estates as a conservation input, claiming that the environment will not sustain the higher numbers. As at Altcar, the introduction of new stock is only part of a scheme which must include new attitudes in the farming and keepering of the land. The hares introduced come from estates where they are in abundance and where otherwise they would have been shot for control purposes. They are never coursed until they have had the chance to become completely familiar with and acclimatised to their new home.

Because so few hares are killed in coursing and hare hunting, opponents have been forced to stress the claim that the hare suffers cruelty in pursuit. Nature has designed the hare from birth to defend itself with its agility, speed and alertness to danger.

The Scott Henderson Committee, reporting in 1951 to the then Labour Government, concluded, “There are no grounds for supposing that (animals) suffer from apprehension to the same extent as human beings or that a frightening experience has the same serious or lasting effect upon them as it may have upon us.” Dr. Stoddart, a zoologist consulted by the RSPCA, was more forthright when giving evidence to a Lords Select Committee on a bill to ban coursing. The Committee in 1976 concluded from his evidence that the hare’s flight “is a natural instinctive and behavioural response; it is, in fact, a normal state of affairs. Just as it is biologically necessary for an animal to heed the warnings of physical pain, so also it is biologically necessary that an animal of a prey species should not suffer psychologically by being chased. If an animal did so suffer, its capacity to escape would be impaired and the species would risk elimination by process of natural selection. In addition to these considerations, it must be observed that an animal of a prey species like a hare has also evolved the capacity to instinctively resume, very quickly after the chase is over, exactly what it was doing before the chase began.” An emotive claim is often made by opponents of field sports that pregnant hares are coursed at the Waterloo Cup. The Committee commented,“…since hares do not go underground or hide away to produce their young, but drop their leverets in the open, it followed that the dam must be as well adapted to escape by her speed when pregnant as when not pregnant…There is no evidence that a pregnant hare aborts after pursuit. It would, in fact, be maladaptive if a pregnant female were less able to escape from a predator. In the light of Dr Stoddart’s evidence, the Committee rejected the view that coursing involves mental suffering for the hare…The Committee do not believe that chasing the hare causes terror.

For the hare, pursuit is a normal fact of everyday life which engages all the abilities which nature has given it to survive with. The hare makes no moral distinction between pursuers; between fox, hawk, or hound.

Coursing is perhaps the oldest of field sports, and it was thanks to the Romans’ love of coursing that the brown hare was introduced to the British Isles. Flavius Arrianus wrote in AD 116 that “The true sportsman does not take out his dogs to destroy the hares, but for the sake of the course … and is glad if the hare escapes.” The same applies today. Coursing is the test of the merits of two “gazehounds”, which chase by sight not scent, judged by a complex points system. Seven out of eight hares coursed escape unharmed. At the 1999 Waterloo Cup, the premier event of the coursing season, 14 hares were killed in 108 courses, or 1 in 7.7. On average between two and three hares are killed per coursing day. The National Coursing Club ensures through its Rules and its Coursing Inspectors that its meetings are properly conducted and that any suffering of the hare on a coursing day is reduced to the minimum. On the estates where coursing is practised, great care is taken to protect and preserve the hares, so that the greatest densities of hares in this country are often found on land where coursing meetings take place.

The Game Conservancy concluded in its 1992 report on hares that “hunting has not been responsible for the decline” in hare numbers in modern times. Only field sports and farming can forge the creative partnership which will ensure that the hare flourishes in our countryside.

Please note that under the Hunting Act 2004, all forms of coursing, including Coursing under NCC Rules, are illegal and therefore all references to coursing refer to coursing before the Act came into force.