Take on Nature: Hare today could be gone tomorrow

The Irish hare has been here for between 30,000 and 60,000 years and is a distinct sub-species of the mountain hare

SCRAMBLING up the scree-covered slopes of Croagh Patrick, the ground slithering away beneath me, and I am briefly baffled by a thudding noise from behind.

It is one of those parts on the dangerously eroded mountain where stopping is not an option as continuous momentum is needed to avoid sliding all the way back down. The thumping comes closer and then just a few feet from me a huge hare glances nonchalantly towards me as it lopes past.

It is not just on mountainsides that you will come across the Irish hare, one of our few remaining truly indigenous mammals. More often I have come across them while walking down a country lane and even on the scrubland beside a rocky shore.

You will quite often see them scarpering alongside the runways, beneath the wings of stationary planes and in the car parks at Belfast and Dublin airports. Once in Dublin airport while walking down one of those long glass corridors that connect terminals I heard a mother trying to educate her son.

“Look Oisin at the rabbit,” she said,

“It's not a rabbit Mammy, it's a hare,” responded the boy, almost apologetic for his superior knowledge about wildlife.

The similarity between hares and rabbits is fairly superficial – rabbits are much smaller, dumpier and more rotund, while the hares bodies are leaner, their ears longer and their powerful hind legs catapult them at much faster speeds than their distant cousins.

Hares are almost catlike in their mannerisms, using their front paws to clean their faces and frolicking with one another in boxing and wrestling matches.

The rabbit is an invader, introduced into Ireland by the Normans around 800 years ago, while the Irish hare has been here for between 30,000 and 60,000 years. It was cut off from the European brown hare for thousands of years during the last ice age, giving it a unique lineage and making it a distinct subspecies.

Yet, once again due to the intervention of humans, this most ancient of our indigenous animals faces a threat from an introduced species.

Brown hares were brought to Ireland in the 19th century by wealthy landlords for coursing – the brown is much faster than the native Irish, making for much better sport – sport in the sense of releasing dogs to chase, corner and rip them apart.

There are reports that some of the descendants of these hares linger in counties Meath, Dublin and Louth.

However, according to research carried out at Queen's University Belfast a few years ago a much more dangerous threat to the native Irish hare comes from a growing number of brown hares in the mid-Ulster region. The study suggested that their forbearers may have been introduced less than 50 years ago, in the 1970s.

The invader numbers are growing and they compete with our native hares for food resources and there are concerns about hybridisation through cross-breeding.

In mythologies throughout the world the hare is symbolic of the feminine and is linked to the moon, fertility and creativity. How ironic that this ancient and, in many ways mysterious animal, should be left vulnerable as the result of macho ignorance and blood-lust.

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