Is the hare our national animal?

STEPHEN JAY GOULD remarked that “the Irish elk was neither Irish nor an elk”. Although found throughout much of northern Europe, the giant deer was once the iconic Irish mammal.

Since nothing remains of the ancient beast, except bones, who should now be the Irish national animal? The red deer might seem the obvious choice, but it too has a flawed pedigree.

Once considered a true native, it’s now thought to be an introduction. Red deer could just about swim here from Scotland, but it’s more likely that Bronze Age people introduced them.

But, if the deer is not to be the national mascot, what other species might be a contender? The mountain hare is the obvious candidate. Arriving soon after the last ice age, it has been here long enough to develop Irish solutions to Irish problems; ours is a unique sub-species, not found anywhere else. Some even think that Lepus timidus hibernicus, the timid Irish leaper, is sufficiently different from Scottish and European hares to be given full species status. It’s bigger than the other hares and does not turn white in winter. Whiteness, however, is still in its genes because, very occasionally, a white animal is recorded. Foreign mountain hares are confined to high ground, whereas the Irish one is found everywhere from the mountains to sea level.

Mountain hares once lived in lowland Britain, until another species, the brown hare, was introduced by the Romans. This thrives in grasslands, from which it ousted its mountain cousin. Browns have been released here. There are some in Derry and Tyrone and possibly Louth and Meath, but the species never prospered. This suggests that the Irish hare, unlike its British counterpart, can out-compete brown ones even in lowland areas, but the evidence is conflicting. James Fairley found that there were far more hares on Mayo farmland than on adjoining heather moors, but Karina Dingerkus, in a study in the North, reported the opposite.

Being an iconic animal is, however, no guarantee of prosperity, or even of survival. The Irish hare, though much loved by the public, has not been faring all that well. Landowners have reported a steady decline in hare numbers in recent decades, although the evidence is anecdotal. Now, a group of scientists have carried out a study for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Status of Hares in Ireland, which has just been published, makes interesting reading.

The authors began by examining records of hares killed on large estates from the mid-1840s onwards. Many of the great houses kept detailed bag-totals of shoots. Up to 1914 the numbers remained stable but, from then on, there was a steady decline in hare kills. The two world wars and the War of Independence complicated the picture somewhat but, using statistical pyrotechnics, these political and social upheavals have been taken into account. The authors are confident that, while hares managed to hold their own in the 19th century, their numbers fell steadily during the 20th.

Estimating the size of the hare population is no easy task. These mammals are active at night and spend most of the day hidden in long grass. Sampling techniques have been developed which enable changes in the population to be detected over time. Hare surveys were organised by Queen’s University in 2006 and 2007, on behalf of the Wildlife Service. Eighty Wildlife Service staff members visited 691 2km x 2km squares of the Irish National Grid. Counts were made at night, between January and March, when ground cover is lowest and hares are easier to see. A powerful spotlight was shone from a vehicle, which stopped every 200 metres or so along a 1km route through each square. Range-finder equipment was used to determine the distances of animals seen. Additional data were collected on foot and the habitat types identified.

The number of hares recorded in 2006 was 141 while the 2007 total was 224. Hare numbers fluctuate between years so no particular significance can be attached to this difference. No brown hares were seen, but there were 1,209 sightings of rabbits and 198 of foxes. The hares were distributed fairly evenly throughout the country, whereas rabbits and foxes were more abundant in the east and south west. It is estimated there were about 233,000 hares in the Republic in the spring of 2006 and 535,000 in 2007. About 50% of the hares were on farmland in 2006 and 70% in 2007.

The authors are cautious about their findings. A long-term study, using a repeatable counting technique will, they point out, be required before we adequately understand the factors controlling our hare population. In the meantime, they have made a valuable start.

Status of Hares in Ireland; Hare Survey of Ireland 2006/07 by Neil Reid, Karina Dingerkus, W. Ian Montgomery, Ferdia Marnell, Rebecca Jeffrey, Deirdre Lynn, Naomi Kingston and Robbie A. McDonald. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.


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