A quantitative analysis of the abundance and demography of European hares Lepus europaeus in relation to habitat type, intensity of agriculture and climate


  • Editor: RM

Rebecca K. Smith, Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, 43 Old Elvet, Durham DH1 3HN, UK. E-mail: r.k.smith@durham.ac.uk


1. European hares Lepus europaeus have declined throughout Europe since the 1960s. Possible reasons for this include agricultural intensification and changes in climate and predator numbers, but no clear consensus has been reached as to the relative importance of each of these. We aimed to identify factors associated with high and low hare numbers throughout Europe, to determine which could have caused population declines.

2. Results of 77 research papers from 12 European countries were summarized. Relationships between hare density and demographics and habitat, climate, hunting and predator variables were examined and quantified where possible. Temporal changes in factors identified as being associated with high or low numbers of hares were then examined to see if they could explain population declines.

3. Data from pastural habitats were limited, but densities of hares were low. Arable habitats had higher densities than mixed areas in spring, unless farming was intensive in which case densities were similar. In autumn the two habitats had similar densities. Field size, temperature, precipitation and hunting had no effect on density throughout Europe. Fecundity was affected by climate.

4. Arable land, various crops, fallow habitat and temperature were positively associated, and monoculture, precipitation and predators negatively associated with hare abundance. The relationship of field size, pasture and woodland with abundance depended on spatial scale.

5. Habitat changes caused by agricultural intensification are the ultimate cause of hare population declines. Effects of changes in climate or predator numbers are magnified by the loss of high-quality year-round forage and cover. Further research is required on how habitat changes affect fecundity and survival, and to identify which parameters have the greatest impact on population numbers. Farmland management policies that target the re-establishment of some of the habitat diversity lost within fields, farms and landscapes will help to reverse the decline of the European hare.