Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A Magical Encounter With A Brown Hare At Dawn & Farmland Bird Recording For The BTO On The Chalk

Before I say anything else, I am Under Strict Instruction from one Mr Ted Westie to pass on his delight at the response to his request for new Pigeon Watchers Club members. He tells me that membership now stands at a Whooping 14, including several new International Members. He is Thrilled and has been Pigeon Watching here over the weekend with renewed vigour and dedication ever since (although Poppy got distracted by a fly and was in imminent danger of having her membership revoked as a result. It took some sorting out, believe me.....) :o)

Right, on with the post.

I signed up at the tail end of last year to do some Breeding Bird Surveys for the BTO and was assigned a square up on The Chalk. It is the most beautiful transect to walk, running through bluebell woods, crossing an ancient Roman road and following a section of the Clarendon Way across acres of rolling farmland, before coming out in a idyllic medieval village stuffed full with chocolate-box-type  thatched cottages. It takes in some really stunning countryside, which more or less makes up for the fact that Breeding Bird Surveys are Summer Affairs that start as close to Dawn as you can persuade your aging body to get up and go outside for. As a result of this I fell asleep on the sofa at 2pm with the dogs crashed out beside me, and only woke when Waitrose turned up at 4 to deliver our weekly food shop, sending Teddy off into full on Guard Dog Patrol Bark Mode.

You may understand this better when I tell you I was awake at 4.30am yesterday, was up at 5 and had started the survey by 5.50. 

They are run along Very Precise Rules. You complete two surveys, the first early April to mid May and the second mid May to late June, with each at least four weeks apart. They need to be done so they avoid the frenetic activity of dawn and the quieter time from mid morning on. We don't do them in heavy rain or strong wind either and you record weather conditions as well as start and finish times. The birds you see and hear are all noted down in one of three sections on the form: within 25m of the transect line, between 25-100m of the line and more than 100m of the line. Each species has a specific code attached to it and you use an arrow under the code to represent birds you see in flight. Juveniles aren't recorded and you also don't make a distinction between males and females. In addition to this, you note down details of the habitat type for each of the 200m sections along the two transect lines.

Sounds quite complicated and I have to admit quailing when I first saw the forms, but actually they are reasonably self-explanatory and as soon as you start you realise it really isn't rocket science....

You do have to be reasonably proficient at recognising bird song to do these surveys because, believe it or not, you don't actually see many birds while surveying. Last summer I would not have been good enough - my ability to confidently id birds from song alone was restricted to our regular garden visitors, but I have worked and worked at bird song ids and am now not too bad. The list recorded yesterday stands at:

Yellow Hammer
Wood Pigeon (more of these than anything else!)
Song Thrush
White Throat
Great Tit
Red Legged Partridge
Tree Creeper
Green Woodpecker
Carrion Crow

I was surprised not to hear Blue Tits, Green Finches or Goldcrests, but perhaps we'll get those on the second trip. The other thing that's worth noting is that it is Hard Work concentrating for over an hour on each and every bird call at a time of day when they are all shouting loudly at the same time. My head was spinning by the end and, much as I enjoyed it, it was something of a relief just to enjoy the birdsong and not work out who was who when we finished!

All the recordings are sent to the BTO who then use them to monitor species trends and advise Government and European conservation legislation as well as habitat management, so the surveys are vitally important.

We only had the little camera and my mobile with us, so the pics are not really up to my usual high exacting standards (!), but I want to show you the magical thing that happened while we were surveying....

A beautiful Brown Hare came hopping up the track towards us. We both froze, I thought he hadn't seen us and would hop over our feet. He came ever so close, but eventually he hopped under a gate a few feet away and went into the next door field. 

I love hares, they are magical creatures.

In 1800 there were approx. 4 million hares in Britain, but they are thought to have suffered an 80% population decline in the last 100 years, and they are now believed to be entirely absent from some areas of the country.
There are very few, if any, left in the west of the UK- instead the main bulk of the population resides in the east with its large number of arable fields.

Certainly, I used to see a lot more of them 20 years ago. Watching Mad March Hares boxing was a not uncommon site when I lived up on The Chalk, but its now a phenomenon that few people have seen. Habitat loss, changes in farming practice, hedgerow removal and pesticide use are the likely culprits. As well as hunting and persecution. The pesticide one is nasty- it gets on their paws while they are hopping among fields looking for food, so they lick them to try and clean them, ingest the toxins and die a painful death. Illegal trapping and hare coursing are barbaric too.

They are considered a pest species by some farmers because they eat some crops. The Brown Hare's preferred food source is actually grasses and herbs, with grasses forming their summer diet and herbs the winter food source. If you take all the grass and herbs out of an environment by removing hedges and creating mono-cultures of cereals and vegetables then you leave the wildlife little chance to feed naturally, so they will turn to whatever is available to them. It's the same problem otters face with over-stocked fishing lakes and rivers. They're an irresistible draw- an easy meal. Our local keeper allows a budget of £6000 to feed his otters per annum, reasoning that it's his responsibility to look after them. If only everyone was so enlightened when it came to caring for the wildlife on their patch.
The huge loss in hay meadows and the preference for silage making has also impacted heavily on hares, both as food and shelter sources. The farming practice of stripping fields bare of cover over winter also hasn't helped them, although thanks to environmental farming schemes that is decreasing now.

For some reason best known to DEFRA (let's not start on that one or we'll be here all night) hares are the only game species NOT to have a closed season. This means they can be legitimately shot all year round, including when they have young. Leverets (baby hares) are thus orphaned and left to starve. A campaign to get them a closed season was rejected by the Government in 2013. Because of this, the only legislation that gives hares a modicum of protection dates from 1892, which is a tad ancient, even by archaic UK conservation legislation standards.
They do have their own BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) which aimed to double their numbers by 2010. I doubt that has been achieved. But, the good news is that hares appear to be relatively resilient at bouncing back when given a chance- there are records of hares breeding in every month now, presumably a climate-change link is at work there, so if we can look after their habitat better hopefully they can make a come back. As with all things, we also need to demonstrate that hares are not responsible for decimating crops by themselves and can live peacefully side by side with agriculture.

They are remarkable creatures- did you know they can accelerate up to 45mph? 

If you want to know more, or feel moved to support them in a more direct way, the Hare Preservation Trust's website can be found  here  . Membership is £10 per year and I have just joined :o) I've also registered the sighting with them- if you live in the UK and happen to see any Hares when you're out and about I'm sure they'd be very grateful for the record. The form can be found at their website and is very easy to use.

I'll leave you with a few pics from yesterday's breeding bird survey, taken on the mobile so apologies for the quality, but you get the sense of very early morning, hopefully? I'll take the proper camera out with me next time....

Hope you're all well?

CT :o)


  1. I agree hares are magical animals. I've seen them at close quarters only twice: once in the grounds of Lodge Park, Glos., when we disturbed a resting hare from his sleepy hollow and we watched him go from zero to about 20mph in moments, and the second time running down a quiet lane in Cornwall with a hare running ahead. Both times I was struck by how big and powerful those hind quarters are. Just wonderful and thank you for all the very interesting conservation background. It seems to me that our flora and fauna is increasingly under threat from money-making schemes that only benefit the few. In my neck of the woods if you stand up for say bats (a protected species anyway) in the face of, for example, a planning application, you are considered slightly cranky. Some people just don't understand that everything is connected. And I am so impressed by you being able to ID birds by song; I would love to be able to do that.

    1. Those are two wonderful hare stories- they really do have a fantastic turn of speed when disturbed. I have learnt today that their resting places are called 'forms'.

      What frustrates me in conservation and planning decisions is that conservation always comes off worst, and yet we have all the evidence we need that we are fundamentally and systematically destroying the natural elements of our planet- on which we all depend for our own survival. I absolutely agree- all life is interconnected.

      There is a very good app you can get for i phones which lists all common birds and has their songs and calls attached. It's been invaluable for me when I'm out in the woods and hear something new calling. I think the RSPB still produces CDs of birdsong too, although it's perhaps harder to relate it to real birds singing and learn them. I also have a friend who is wonderfully expert at it and going out for walks with him is a complete joy!

  2. As the world watches on TV, the bank of cameras focus in on the very last animal on earth. As it breathes it's last breath,the announcer says in a funereal voice. "How did this happen?".
    Jane x

    1. An unbearable thought. I don't know how bad it has to get before more people start to listen and take action. x

  3. Oh dear, I am rather sad after reading your post and the comments. I also love hares, I remember many years ago watching a whole field of mad march hares happily dancing in the dusk, me and my Dad hiding in a hollow as the sun disappeared, just magical. Our allotments have a couple too, I'm sure they are responsible for many a missing cabbage seedling but you know I would rather keep the hares than the cabbages!

    1. It's perhaps a reflection of the times we live in that feeling that sadness is what makes folks take action to save a threatened species. I really hope we can move beyond that and reach a place where wildlife is safe. I think we can.

      I loved reading your hare tales- they seem to touch people in a way other species don't. It's no wonder really that they have such a strong presence in folklore.

      And I'm so very glad to read that you have hares at your allotments- I know with you there there will be a ready supply of food and shelter for them.

      Hope the revision is going well? I've just made a start on mine today!

      CT xx

    2. I have to confess this year, the hares will be very hungry if they go a-looking for produce on my plot! Not started the revision properly just yet as writing my last long essay for Thursday -all about post-war democracy! Are you enjoying your revising? Perhaps very soon you will be writing degrees for other ecology students.

    3. As long as there's long grass the hares should be fine- you could plant some herbs too?
      I quite like the organisation aspect of revision but to be honest often feel exams are redundant and that a piece of work you've time to research, plan, prepare and then write tells someone more about your ability.

  4. The ancient Celts thought the noble hare to be sacred CT. Boadicea use to take an hare into battle with her. Beautiful creatures.

    1. It has that place in many cultures, something very mystical and other worldly about hares. They are such magical creatures.

  5. A very impressive list of birds. Well done you for taking part in the survey. Hares are magical creatures aren't they, it's such a shame that they're on the decline. Hares and everything else it sometimes seems. CJ xx

    1. The post war period has been a disaster for native British wildlife. We're trying very hard to reverse those declines with, it has to be said, very little assistance from our current Government when it comes to policy making. This is why I am leaning towards education when I finish this degree- it really, really matters. I think it is the best chance our wild things have, because I really believe the majority of people want to help, they just perhaps don't know how to. Show them the way and miracles will happen xx

  6. We do ok for hares round here, I do see a few while out cycling or running. But then, I am in the East Mids.

    I tried to improve my birdsoing skills watching the BBC4 hour of Dawn Chorus the other night. A wood warbler is one I think I could pick up.

    1. That's really interesting about your hares Si- and exactly in keeping with what I've read. Thank God we've got a strong native population somewhere still in the UK. Let's just hope they are properly looked after there.

      I've not heard a wood warbler so will have to listen to that- the RSPB website has a good list of bird song. At the mo I'm having to work hard to separate blackcap, willow warbler and white throat. They have all got muddled up inside my head!

  7. The facts you relate about the decline of the beautiful hare deeply sadden me. And I am horrified they can be shot at any time of year..really mystified that is the case when numbers are so few.
    I've been lucky enough to have a couple of sightings of hares over the last couple of years and my goodness that has been thrilling! xxxLily

    1. The funny thing is that the post didn't start out to be about hares at all, but since writing it I've thought of little else all day. I feel moved to get more involved. I've always loved them. xxxx

  8. These surveys are of course what is feeding the work patterns of the various Wildlife Trusts and are so important for information gathering and comparisons. I read a really good paper about Hares, a survey done about declines and reasons why. Interestingly they revealed that large numbers of hares had syphilis! While I was out walking last week a hare came bounding towards me, must not have noticed I was there, and then suddenly swerved away. The field it was running in was being sprayed (fertilizer/pesticide? - it made me and the dogs sneeze!). I'm enjoying the sound of swallows in my shed and a distant cuckoo.

    1. I didn't know that about the Syphilis. Through college I have access to academic journals so have every intention of spending some time reading up the latest research. That little hare has done something to me....

  9. oh dear....hares are profoundly and powerfully magical -- and they turn up a lot in my own arty bits so i've a terrible soft spot and great reverence for them. and let us not get into the Complete And Utter Bollocks that modern agricultural practices have made of things...it's one of my great irritations that things like hedgerow removals, monocultures and field-stripping are not included often enough in discussions about environmental protections. Corporate farming -- especially here in Ontario [and i'm sure all over Canada] has a lot to answer for but you'll never hear a word spoken against them because the farmers are all up to their eyes in massive debt and everyone wants cheap food.


    *whistles softly and looks down at feet*

    you are quite brilliant with the bird songs -- how fabulous to have such a repertoire! i'm very much inspired!


    1. I've been looking round our house today Mel and it occurred to me that hares are everywhere in it- they have come to live here without me really paying much attention or noticing. This feels something like a calling....

      Food production is the real problem - it continually clashes against the needs of wildlife and so far has been presented as an either/ or scenario. I don't think it needs to be that way, but we aren't there yet. More work needs to be done. Sleeves rolled up and get stuck in time, me thinks... xxx

  10. Great post CT - BTO surveys are good fun - you can enjoy yourself and contribute to science at the same time :)

    Love the hare photo - there's a local site where I've seen them in the past but haven't seen any this year or last :( Totally agree about DEFRA and the lack of a closed season. Could go into rant mode yet again but will resist. The Hunting Act covers hares too so if that is ever repealed goodness knows the ill effect that will have on hare populations let alone the cruelty involved with hare coursing :( Oh dear have started to rant after all! Will just leave it at that!

    1. Maybe things will begin to change after tomorrow? We can but hope :o) x

  11. So wonderful to spot that Hare! We saw one on holiday in Ireland many years ago and I have never forgotten the sighting! Sarah x

    1. They do seem to have the effect on people, don't they? Incredibly magical, memorable creatures x


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x