Belfast Telegraph

Irish hare could be driven to extinction

By Linda Stewart

The Irish hare could be driven to extinction within decades unless action is taken to curb the spread of the invading European hare.

That’s the stark warning that has spurred some of the world’s leading hare experts to demand that plans be drawn up to eradicate the invader.

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast warned that the Irish hare’s days could be numbered due to the march of the European — or brown hare — which has formed strongholds in Mid-Ulster and west Tyrone.

“In March 2011 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to outlaw hare coursing in Northern Ireland to protect the future of the Irish hare. But our native hare remains vulnerable to another serious threat — that of the invading European hare,” said Dr Neil Reid from Quercus (Queen’s University’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science).

“European hares are found in Britain and continental Europe, but they have been highly successful in invading many countries beyond their native range in south-west Europe and parts of Asia. There have been many studies on their impact on native species.”

Dr Reid reviewed these studies to get a clearer picture of how much of a threat the invading species might be to the Irish hare and the resulting paper was published in the journal Biological Invasions.

It revealed that European hares pose strong competition for habitat space and food resources, hitting native hares.

Meanwhile, parasite and disease transmission along with climate competition may give the European invader the edge over the native hare.

Not only are European hares out-competing native hares, but they are also mating with them to form hybrid offspring.

“The Irish hare represents an evolutionary unique lineage, which is restricted to Ireland where it has been present since before the last glacial maximum, making it one of our few native mammal species,” Dr Reid said.

“Hence, it has been isolated for 30,000-60,000 years.

“So the discovery that both species are hybridising in the wild is very worrying.

“In my opinion, what is needed is some kind of trial cull or intervention to take out the European hares and see whether they repopulate,” he added.

The research was commissioned by the European hare sub-group of the Irish hare Species Action Plan Steering Group.

The research was carried in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘Species’ Magazine, putting the Irish hare beside internationally recognised flagships for conservation including gorillas, rhinos and elephants.

For further information on the hare research, visit www.quercus.ac.uk

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