Why brown hares could benefit from exotic crops

Non-native biomass crops, when planted on a small scale, provide a refuge for Britain’s declining brown hare population, which has lost much of its habitat to large scale farming.  

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Brown hare in crop field.
Brown hares are under threat in the UK due to habitat loss from large scale farming. © Andy Rouse /NPL/Getty

 

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Hull, and the Open University set out to investigate the effect crops grown for bioenergy have on one of Britain’s most threatened farmland species, the brown hare.

The study, which was funded by People’s Trust for Endangered Species and published this week in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, focused on elephant grass, which is one of the most common crops grown for bioenergy in the UK and Europe.

Researchers found that planting the crop in small blocks provides a good habitat for brown hares.

Although the elephant grass itself isn’t used as a food source for hares, due to the fact that it isn’t sprayed with herbicides it has a rich ground cover of other plants on which the hares can feed.

Being tall and dense, the grass also provides an excellent place to rest and shelter.

Data from the study revealed that a small area of elephant grass can support a high number of hares: the research recorded the smallest home ranges ever found for brown hares, being five times smaller than those associated with large scale planting.

From this data, it might be easy to conclude that the solution to helping Britain’s brown hare population is to plant more elephant glass, but paradoxically, planting the grass on a larger scale wouldn’t be beneficial to the brown hare population, but in fact discourages them.

Dr Silviu Petrovan from the University of Cambridge who led the study, explains: “The caveat is that hares do need other components of their habitat, so where the crop is dense and planted over a wide area, hare ranges were much bigger than normal, causing them to expand a lot more energy as they need to travel further to find natural foraging areas.”

However, Dr Phil Wheeler from the Open University, who led the research, speculated that although beneficial for wildlife, planting on a small scale may not be economically or logistically viable for farmers.

Read the full paper

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