Irish hare may be running out of time

A DELIGHTFUL sight in the Irish countryside, seen rarely enough these days, is that of a hare bounding along ears up at great speed, especially after being surprised by human, or canine, presence.

Coursing and loss of habitat have, for long, been regarded as among the chief threats to the Irish hare, but a new danger has emerged.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have issued a strong warning about the future of the Irish hare and the threat it faces from the European “brown” hare which has set up home in Mid-Ulster and west Tyrone. It is probably only a matter of time before this hare spreads around the country, just like the American grey squirrel which is a threat to the native Irish squirrel.

Last month the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to outlaw hare coursing in Northern Ireland to protect the future of the Irish hare. However, Dr Neil Reid from Quercus (Queen’s University’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science), is highlighting the threat post by the European invader.

European hares are found in Britain and continental Europe, but they have been highly successful in invading many countries beyond their native range in south-west Europe and parts of Asia.

There have been many studies on their impact on native species. Dr Reid reviewed these studies to get a clearer picture of how much of a threat the invading species might be to the Irish hare. The study, published in the international journal Biological Invasions, suggested that European hares pose strong competition for habitat space and food resources with native species, most notably other hare species. It also warns that disease and parasite transmission and climate change may give the European hare an edge over our native species. Cross-breeding, or hybridisation, is another worry.

According to Dr Reid, the Irish hare has unique ancestry and has evolved over tens of thousands of years. Also, it is found only in Ireland making it one of our few native mammal species. “Hence, it has been isolated for 30,000- 60,000 years. So the discovery that both species are hybridising in the wild is very worrying,” he says.

The scientific community is so concerned that a panel of international experts, from the Lagomorph Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s foremost authority on threatened species, signed a foreword to accompany the paper as an urgent call for further research and are calling for a European hare Invasive Species Action Plan (iSAP) and Eradication Strategy.

The research was commissioned by the European hare sub-group of the Irish Hare Species Action Plan Steering Group and funded by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) through the Natural Heritage Research Partnership (NHRP).

Anyone familiar with the Irish countryside will know that the hare has disappeared from many areas it once frequented. The population has suffered a huge decline since the mid-20th century due to the modernisation of agriculture, changes in land use, loss of suitable habitat and, some would claim, hunting and the effects of field sports.

The open coursing tradition still continues in some parts of the country where men and dogs head off into the hills and fields in the hope or “rising” a hare and seeing the dogs give chase, only to be outsmarted by the wily, weaving hare.

The impression is sometimes given that the GAA games are the totally dominant sports in certain parts of Ireland. That’s nearly always a myth. For no matter where you go you’ll find a sizeable percentage of people who have no interest whatever in football, or hurling.

But, they might be very involved in pursuits such as angling, hill walking, or open coursing. Their Sundays could be spent out with dogs: what they want is a good course, not a kill. And they’re happiest when the hares live to run and tantalise the dogs another day.

Hares need good quality grassland for grazing at night, interspersed with areas of tall vegetation providing cover and shelter for lying-up during the day — patches of rushes, for example. They can also to be found in beach areas, dunes and golf links. Dooks Golf Club, in Co Kerry, for instance, takes pride in the hares that grace its links, in addition to the natterjack toad.

Tall plants provide food, and cover where they can lie up during the day, out of sight of predators. Hares rest above ground in shallow depressions called ‘forms’, and in some areas will dig shallow burrows. Their diet includes heather, herbs, gorse, dandelions and grasses. In the mating season, hares engage in dramatic courting rituals and there are often squabbles as they kick, box and chase each other, which explains the old saying, “as mad as a March hare”.

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