Over the last few decades, there have been significant declines in Brown Hare Lepus europaeus numbers throughout Europe, leading to concern for their status in many countries. In Britain, there were no quantified data on the extent of this decline, on current population levels, or any baseline against which to monitor future population changes. The need for a quantified national hare survey led to this evaluation of the techniques available to assess hare numbers. Published information on counting hares is reviewed, and various techniques compared by applying them to a number of sites in southern England.
Three basic approaches are available: counts of inactive hares, counts of active hares and indirect methods. Counts of inactive hares include total clearance, wide belt and line transect counts. Total clearance counts give an absolute figure, but are labour intensive and can only be applied to restricted areas. Wide-belt assessments are difficult to apply in certain habitats and even in open areas tend to produce a substantial over-estimate. Line transect counts are easy to undertake and are not labour intensive but should only be applied to large areas, or data from several small areas combined. Counts based on active hares are more problematical, because it is difficult to determine what proportion of the population is inactive at any one time. Spotlight counts based on variable circular plots are the most accurate but difficult to apply widely, and twilight counts are very subjective in their interpretation, especially when surveying small areas or areas with a large proportion of concealing habitats. Of the indirect methods, dung pellet counts can be valuable in specific areas but are difficult to apply across a range of habitats.
We concluded that, of the various techniques considered, line transect counts have the greatest potential for a national survey, but need to be stratified so that enough transects are undertaken within each habitat stratum to obtain a reliable mean population estimate for each stratum.