17/02/2016 13:11 GMT | Updated 17/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Splitting Hares - The Persecution of a Countryside Icon

I've been wracking my brain to work out why anyone would hate a hare. Some might say 'farmers', believing that hares go to work on their crops in the same way that rabbits do, however that's not true. Scientific reports show that the damage hares do to crops is minimal, and they might even have a beneficial effect in some cases.

So why then, would anyone hate a hare? I mean, the Easter Bunny was originally the Easter Hare, for goodness' could you hate the Easter Bunny?

Frivolity aside, I think most will agree there is no reason to hate hares. So why then are they persecuted, hunted, shot and snared in numbers big enough to be putting their very existence in this country at risk?

Just recently, footage taken by my team at the League Against Cruel Sports of what we believe was an illegal hare hunt was sent as evidence to the North Yorkshire Police for consideration. Hare hunting looks very much like fox hunting, except the dogs involved are usually beagles or basset hounds. The 'chase', usually on foot, can last an hour and a half, until the hare is run to exhaustion and then killed.

The hunt involved in the footage was the Eton Beagles, which led to a lot of media interest, for obvious reasons. When people think of hunting, they usually think of fox hunting, but most do not realise that around one in three hunts across England and Wales hunt hares.

This is the point where people often ask: 'But hunting is illegal, isn't it?' Yes, it is. But do we at the League Against Cruel Sports believe that hunting still goes on? Yes, we do. The discussion as to why more hunts aren't therefore found guilty of illegal hunting is for another time, but let's just say that if there were as many CCTV cameras in the countryside as there are in cities, it may be a different story.

Please don't get confused between hare hunting, and hare coursing. The latter is where hares are set upon by fast running dogs like lurchers or greyhounds. At organised meets, bets are taken as to which dog can 'turn' the hare, but it's always a no win for the hare, which often will be ripped apart as the two dogs turn it into a living tug of war.

Reports in the media suggest that hare coursing is seeing a resurgence, particularly in and around Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, where it is reported to be 'a daily activity'. How depressing.

Shooting hares is another 'popular' activity, with around 300,000 to 400,000 shot each year. It's a lucrative business, with a day's shooting costing up to a £1000. Refer again to the paragraph above about hares and farming - there's no 'reason' for it - they are being shot purely because they are good 'sport'.

Shooting hares can take place all year round, as there is no 'closed season' for these persecuted animals. While at the League we believe that hare shooting should simply be banned, many organisations are calling for at least a closed season for hares during this month, February. This is the time of year where hares are either pregnant or nursing young - just think about the suffering being inflicted as the bullets fly.

Another silent but deadly killer of huge numbers of hares are snares - wire nooses which lay in wait for unsuspecting animals to pass by before being caught in their deadly grip. The majority of snares (and they are used in massive numbers) are laid by gamekeepers around shooting estates. The snares are usually targeting foxes, which the gamekeepers hate because they might kill the birds which the gamekeepers are protecting (so that they can then be shot for sport). However, a snare can't tell a fox from a hare, nor even from a dog or cat, so two thirds of the animals caught in snares are non-target species. Hares make up a very large part of that number.

And in Scotland, Mountain Hares are reportedly being driven to extinction by gamekeepers, because it is believed they carry a tick which can kill grouse. This link is disputed, but the killing continues (of both hares and grouse).

If all this persecution of hares wasn't enough in itself, the fact is that hare numbers are so low that they could disappear from many parts of the country very soon, if they haven't already. An exception, but don't let it fool you, is in those parts of Eastern England/East Anglia I mentioned earlier - this is where most of the hare shoots are held, so the land is nurtured to ensure they breed in big enough numbers to give the shooters a good day out.

But in the rest of the country, we're in danger of losing one of our most iconic animals. The population has dropped by about 80% in the last 100 years, a massively worrying figure. The government tried to take action a few years ago to increase numbers, but that failed to achieve its goal. Agricultural practices have had a huge impact on hare numbers, but the practices of those intent on killing them for other reasons are also having a major impact. This is why it is vital the activity of hare hunts across England and Wales remains illegal. Any repeal of the Hunting Act would be a nail in the coffin for this much loved mammal.

So why do the people who do this hate hares? The answer is, they don't hate hares. They either just enjoy the 'sport' of killing them, or they kill them so that others can enjoy the 'sport' of killing birds like grouse and pheasants. No, that doesn't make sense to me, either.

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