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Hare today, gone tomorrow?

By Linda Stewart

Brown hares spreading through Northern Ireland’s countryside may have to be culled if the native Irish hare is to survive.

That’s the warning from wildlife experts at Queen’s University, Belfast, who insist the Irish hare is facing a threat at least as bad as that which red squirrels face from their non-native grey cousins.

Native Irish hares have almost vanished from some parts of Northern Ireland — in particular, a broad stretch across mid-Ulster — and culling of competing brown hares may be the only way to stem the losses, according to Dr Neil Reid of Quercus at Queen’s.

Like red squirrels, which are being pushed out by competition from larger grey squirrels, Irish hares are also being outcompeted by brown or European hares, which are thought to have been introduced at a number of locations many years ago to spice up the sport of hare coursing,

But they are also endangered on another front — both species have now begun to mate together, hybridising to produce offspring that are gradually eroding the uniqueness of the Irish hare.

Environment Minister Edwin Poots said research by scientists at Queen’s on roadkill has revealed that hybridisation has occurred between the two species in Northern Ireland.

“This study has revealed that there is two-way hybridisation taking place — female Irish hares mating with brown hares and female brown hares mating with Irish hares,” he said.

“This gives concern for the protection of the ‘uniqueness’ of our native Irish hare population,” the minister said in response to an Assembly question put forward by the DUP’s Jim Shannon.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has now commissioned scientists at Queen’s to produce a report highlighting the risks of inter-breeding, with recommendations on how to tackle the problem. But Dr Reid said there is only one way to deal with the problem and that is culling.

“Back in 2004 we discovered that there are large numbers of non-native hare, mostly in mid-Ulster,” he said.

“We know of 14 recorded introductions in Ireland, five of them in Northern Ireland.

“Where these have occurred elsewhere, such as in Sweden, they have reduced the native hare completely. They interbreed and the brown hares end up replacing the natives.”

The Irish hare was once regarded as a separate species but was then downgraded to a sub-species of the mountain hare, which shows 16 distinct types throughout its range circling the northern regions of the world.

However, genetic analysis at Queen’s has led to suggestions in recent years that it should once again be considered a separate species.

“The Irish hare is one of our main species for conservation action and the brown hare poses a threat to the Irish hare, both through competition and hybridisation,” Dr Reid added.

“We’ve been asked to stand back and take an objective look at what might be done. Eradicating them will be fairly difficult as it involves a large area and multiple landowners.

“Trapping tends to be unsuccessful, netting is very labour intensive, and shooting them tends not to sit well with the public. However, culling the hares and their hybrids to preserve the genetic purity of the Irish hare is the only way we have of dealing with this.”

Invaders that prove to be a real menace

The brown or European hare was introduced into Northern Ireland in the mid-1800s for sporting purposes. There are thought to have been five historic introductions and the species has now become strongly established in Mid Ulster and parts of Co Tyrone.

The zebra mussel was accidentally introduced into Ireland in 1994 and has spread to Lough Erne and Lough Neagh in recent years. Zebra mussels can disrupt whole ecosystems by changing nutrient cycles, filtering out phytoplankton which form the basis of the food chain, increasing water clarity and boosting weed growth.

Mink farming was banned here in 2003, but there are six farms in the Republic and American mink have become firmly established in the wild throughout Ireland due to escapes. They can pose a serious threat to ground-nesting birds, particularly colonies of seabirds nesting on islands.

Giant hogweed was introduced from the Caucasus in the late 19th as an architectural garden plant and has now invaded damp habitats such as riversides and railway cuttings. The plant is classified as controlled waste and it is an offence to move ground material polluted with its seed. Contact with the plant in the presence of sunlight can cause a serious skin reaction, causing lesions which can be slow to heal.

A view to a cull

Wildlife experts in Northern Ireland are considering culling grey squirrels in a bid to save the rapidly declining red squirrel. The plan, proposed by scientists at Queen’s University, would be to trap grey squirrels in ‘defensible’ red squirrel strongholds.

Trappers have been hired to catch hedgehogs on the Western Isles of Scotland for the sixth year in a row. The mammals, which are not native to the islands, have been blamed for preying on the eggs of wading birds such as dunlin and ringed plover.

The Department of Agriculture has announced it will cull up to 1,000 badgers as part of a scientific investigation into the spread of bovine TB in the countryside. Farmers believe the animals are responsible for infecting cattle herds.

A pest control expert employed by George Best Belfast City Airport has been given permission to destroy goose eggs at Victoria Park in a bid to reduce the numbers of birds close to flight paths.

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