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Brown Hare (Protection)

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a close season for the hunting of the brown hare; and for connected purposes.

I shall try not to speak for the full allotted time as we have grave and serious matters to debate following this motion.

Hares are an iconic and much-valued part of our country’s wildlife, and I doubt there are many people who, having watched them in the wild, are not fascinated by their behaviour and beauty. I present this Bill in March, and we have all heard of mad March hares, which is traditionally when their behaviour is at its most celebrated. For a long time it was thought that the boxing that occurs was competition between males, but closer observation has revealed that it is usually a female hitting a male, either to show that she is not yet ready to mate, or as a test of his determination.

Over the past 100 years or so, numbers of hares have declined. In some parts of their range they are scarce, but in others they are still relatively abundant. The law currently allows them to be killed as game or to prevent serious damage to farm crops, but unlike other game animals they have no close season in which to raise their young. Some existing legislation cover hares, but I—along with many others—think that a close season is the least that these amazing creatures deserve.

As is so often the case, however, when a matter is looked into in more depth, the simple answer is not the full picture and there are many more complex issues to consider. I am grateful to many people who have helped me while I have researched this subject, particularly Lorraine Platt of Blue Hare, Humane Society International, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the Countryside Alliance. My proposals will probably not please any of them, but I believe they are a sensible middle-ground approach that will allow us to take the matter forward in legislation.

The welfare issue of how hares are killed is, I believe, covered by existing legislation. If those laws are broken, the perpetrators should face the consequences. In fact, the biggest human threat to hares almost certainly comes from illegal coursing and poaching. Gangs of unscrupulous people invade farmland, chasing and killing hares with dogs while trespassing over property, usually in a very aggressive manner. I have been told that this is a real problem for many farmers. Many have lost their hare population through this practice, or have been tempted to eradicate hares from their land to escape the attention of these criminals. I propose that penalties be strengthened and that proper resources be given to police forces to enable real action to be taken against these people.

I have spoken to many interested parties and what strikes me most is that hares are almost universally thought of in kind terms, not just by wildlife enthusiasts like myself but by countrymen and women generally. The reasons for their declining numbers are not shooting, but changing farming practices that leave little areas of cover, and predation, principally by foxes. A fully grown hare can outrun a fox but leverets are particularly vulnerable, so a population can quickly have an imbalance, with fewer young hares coming through. I have seen impressive statistics from the work of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at its Allerton farm project that show how hare numbers increase dramatically when fox numbers are controlled.

It must be recognised that hares can and do damage crops. When I first considered introducing a close season, I was made aware of the danger that farmers who are concerned about that damage would, as a matter of expediency and as a precaution, kill as many hares as possible before the close season to minimise legally the numbers that would cause damage later. That is obviously not the result that I and others are looking for, so I have to concede that provision should be made to allow some shooting, if necessary, during the close season. I envisage something along the lines of section 7 of the Deer Act 1991, which provides a “farmer’s defence” whereby authorised persons may, in certain circumstances, shoot deer if they are causing damage in the close season. I am loth to bring in more bureaucracy, so how that could be enacted would have to be considered in more detail, but I believe this exemption would satisfy the needs of farmers who have genuine concerns about a close season.

The breeding season of the hare is a long one, and dependent somewhat on geography. The current code of practice has been agreed to by a coalition of country interests, including the Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, among others. The work of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on this subject has been extremely thorough. Its code of practice states:

“From 1 March to 31 July hares should only be killed if they are…causing serious crop damage (as opposed to them being a potential source of risk). Not shooting at this time prevents the orphaning of dependent young during the hare’s main breeding season.”

This period should be extended to start on 1 February and end on 31 August, and it should be enshrined in law. That is why I propose the Bill and why I hope it will be given leave to advance today. I do not believe that I am being sentimental about this magnificent creature, but I am taking a pragmatic attitude to help one aspect of its conservation for future generations to enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.


That Sir John Randall, Mark Pritchard, Caroline Nokes, Mr Adrian Sanders, John McDonnell, Angela Smith, Caroline Dinenage and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Sir John Randall accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed (Bill 184).