Hare are hunted with packs of hounds, beagles and bassets (also referred to as ‘beagling’, where the hounds are followed on foot) and by harriers (followed on horseback). These hounds were bred, not for the speed but for the stamina that guaranteed the lengthy chase the hunters sought.
The hare is not a native species to the UK and was introduced by the Romans. During the late 1800s, there were about four million brown hare in Britain. But recent surveys show the brown hare has declined by more than 80% during the past 100 years and the decline is ongoing. In some parts of Britain, such as the south-west, the brown hare is almost a rarity and may even be locally extinct.
The reasons for this decline are not entirely clear, but the intensification of agriculture has certainly been a major factor. Hare do not hibernate or store appreciable amounts of fat in their bodies, so they need a constant food supply throughout the year. This can only be provided by landscapes rich in biodiversity. Their ancestral homes of past aeons provided a diversity of grass and herb species maturing in succession throughout the year. Hare actually prefer to eat wild grasses and herbs, with grasses predominating in the winter and herbs in the summer, but 150,000 miles of hedgerow have been destroyed during the past 50 years, depriving hare of this source of food and shelter. Larger fields containing single crops also mean hare have to travel further in their effort to maintain continuous grazing. Due to this, the hare can only be considered a minor agricultural nuisance unless numbers are excessively high. Damage to cereal and grass crops is generally so low as not to be noticed by farmers. In rare instances, the damage might be more severe, particularly to crops such as peas, sugar beet and vines, but this is on a small scale and, in general, farmers are not concerned by damage to crops caused by hare. Their impact on commercial forestry is negligible, and any reduction in the growth the young conifers is generally quickly recouped. (The Brown Hare in Britain by Stephen Harris and Graeme McLaren University of Bristol 1998)
“In hunting, whether it be of fox or hare, every follower should identify himself with hounds’ aims and give his entire sympathy to them. If he allows himself to sympathise with the hare, his pleasure in the chase will be neutralised and he might as well go home at once.” (The Art Of Beagling, Captain J. Otho Paget. Pub. H.F. & G. Witherby. 1931. Page 217)
Despite its decline, the hare is the only game species in Britain which does not have a close season. Large, organised shoots in East Anglia during February and March can account for 40% of the entire national brown hare population, in addition to hunting by hounds. And since the breeding season is well underway by February, orphaned leverets are left to die of starvation. Hare do have a remarkable ability to recover from such slaughter, but the welfare implication of this is clearly enormous. One of the oddities of our legal system is that it is illegal to hunt the hare on a Sunday; a law which was meant to encourage church attendance. The European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus) is currently on the list of endangered and threatened animal species in the British Isles but receives no specific legal protection.
In the mid-1990s, concern at the brown hare’s decline led to a government Biodiversity Action Plan which had among its aims a doubling of the brown hare population by the year 2010. Recent research at the University of Bristol suggests that this target is unlikely to be achieved by habitat management alone and that measures would need to be taken to reduce hare mortality if that is to be achieved. The reintroduction of the legalisation of coursing and hunting with hounds will, by its very nature, not assist that.
There are 59 beagle packs and 19 harrier packs registered in the UK and, despite claims of trail hunting, this has never been witnessed. When challenged, most hunts will claim to be chasing rabbits; an animal which acts in a completely different fashion to hare by running for its burrow when disturbed, as opposed to hare, who stay above ground despite the danger. Rabbits cannot be hunted in a similar fashion to hare for this reason.
The hare hunting season runs from September or October (depending on the type of pack used) until March, a period that encompasses the main hare breeding season in early Spring and it is by no means uncommon for hunts to kill pregnant hare or leverets. Whilst there is no formal leveret hunting to match the "cub hunting" prelude to fox hunting, there is still the notion of training the hounds on a more vulnerable quarry.
Like fox hunters, hare hunters know a few tricks to enhance their fun at the expense of their quarry. In the run up to the hunting ban (2004), the bagging of hare became like the bagging of foxes. Hare were boxed more than bagged. They were commonly netted and transported around the country in small wooden crates to be released for hunting. This caused much suffering to the transported hare and spread disease among the hare population. This was most prevalent during hare coursing events such as the Waterloo Cup, which takes place near Liverpool, and where large numbers of hare are required over a small period of time. The local hare population cannot naturally supply such excessive numbers. This bagging activity was reported in ‘The current Status of the Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) in Britain’ by Michael R. Hutchings and Stephen Harris 1996 for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
The hare hunting community also put on week long "festivals" where packs from all over the country gather to hunt a relatively small area, such as Alston (Cumbria) or Severn Vale, for a period of one or two weeks, and where there are two packs of hounds hunting each day. The impact on the local hare population is devastating unless bagged hare are also introduced. These "festivals" have continued since the introduction of the hunting act.
Hare are reluctant to leave their territory and don't venture onto new ground under threat, and as a result, hare hunting takes place over a limited area of the country of not more than one or two square miles. Hare spend their lives above ground, so do not "go to ground" like foxes or mink when being hunted. The chase can last up to 90 minutes before the hare is finally killed by the hounds. Hunted hare are run to complete exhaustion and, for the individual hare, the effect on their body is devastating. In one graphic account by the Eton College Hunt, the Master claimed:
“The best run the Beagles had during his Mastership was in the region of Dorney, where they ran a hare for an hour and five minutes, covering more than six miles. In the end, she burst her heart just in front of hounds.”
Lord Burns' Hunting Inquiry pronounced the not too astonishing view that hare hunting, "seriously compromises the welfare of the hare."
For most people today, the killing of animals requires justification. Doing so simply for fun is no justification. Hare were hunted with packs of dogs, not for food, not as pest control, but simply for entertainment. Such callousness would be bad enough were hare common. That they are now, by any account, locally rare is particularly outrageous.