A recent article blaming ‘hunters’ for ‘the decline in hare numbers’ by Chris Luffingham of the LACS in an ‘ecological’ magazine was full of deliberate ‘supposition presented as fact’ and must be challenged.
It is disappointing to see a publication such as The Ecologist (27th March 2018) being used as a vehicle for blatant pseudo-scientific prejudice by the League Against Cruel Sports without any apparent attempt at validation. I am, of course, referring to Chris Luffingham’s effort published on 27th March 2018, entitled “How illegal hunting is now threatening the brown hare” which is somewhat lacking in scientific, evidence-based rigour or peer review.
The particular issues that I have with the article as published are outlined in the following list.
1. In his opening section Mr. Luffingham states “numbers have declined by 80 percent during the last century, according to The Hare Preservation Trust, and they have all but disappeared from some areas of the UK.” However, going to the Trust’s own website the statement is actually “numbers are THOUGHT TO have declined by 80% since the late 19th century and it has become a mammal now seldom seen in many parts of the country.” Now, even though the Hare Preservation Trust is not an unbiased source and any statement it makes should be taken with a large degree of circumspection, the omission of those 2 words THOUGHT TO changes the emphasis of the statement from opinion to something pretending to be fact. Further, “seldom seen” does not necessarily translate to “all but disappeared” as the hare is not only wary, it is very good at hiding particularly on ploughed fields; it is possible to walk past a hare that is less than a metre away without seeing it, and I have done so on several occasions only to see it when it moved after I have passed.
From a scientific perspective, it is not sufficient to just make an assertion for something to be taken as fact, it needs to be supported by rigorously peer-reviewed experimental evidence. I note that neither the Trust’s site nor Mr. Luffingham reference scientific studies from various countries which indicate that, far from being threatened by field sports, populations of brown hare are statistically significantly higher in areas managed for field sports including both hunting and coursing than in other areas (eg “Integrating field sports, hare population management and conservation” by N. Reid, C. Magee and I. Montgomery, published in ACTA THERIOLOGICA, 55(1), 61-71 in 2010 which highlighted that Irish brown hare populations in areas managed for coursing were up to 18 times more abundant than in other areas). In reality, changes to farming practices, urban sprawl, and the proliferation of motorised vehicles have had a much more profound impact on hare populations than any field sports.
2. Much is made of hares being “not protected by a closed hunting season” which while it may be true for shooting, it is not the case for traditional hunting with hounds. Before the days of the Hunting Act, the packs which would pursue hares stop over the late spring and summer when hares are breeding; indeed, although such packs have now transferred to either trail or rabbits, the traditional break over the summer months has been kept. Mr. Luffingham and the Hare Preservation Trust both lambast shooting for continuing year-round, but do not even vaguely acknowledge that in this aspect traditional hunting is actually the more beneficial control approach for hares.
3. The first paragraph in the section entitled Hare hunting references “more than 100 hare hunts … Out of the 300 or so active hunts in England and Wales…” Firstly, considering the article is supposed to relate only to HARE hunting, that higher number of 300 or so includes packs of all hound types and is therefore inaccurate. Secondly, the figure of more than 100 hare hunts is only true if Irish hunts are included – the number for England and Wales is actually 87 across Bassets, Beagles and Harriers – and that count includes some packs which have been disbanded. It is unacceptable for article that is trying to portray itself as fact-based to be misleading on such basic numbers.
4. The author goes on to insinuate that claims of following a trail or rabbits are not true, as per his statement that “Our investigators didn’t see any trails being laid … didn’t see any rabbits being chased this season.” No evidence is supplied, only assertion and insinuation. This is not good scientific practice.
Further, Mr. Luffingham claims that trail hunting was an “activity not in existence prior to the act coming in” which is completely inaccurate. Trail hunting has been in existence for many years, with references made in a variety of sources dating back into the early 20th century and earlier. The term is quite often used interchangeably with “Drag hunting” and even as early as 1904 the annual Baily’s Hunting Directory publication included a section specifically for packs that only followed drag/artificial trails.
5. The section “Nowhere to hide” uses highly emotional language about the hare being “terrified” and “torn to pieces” if caught. Firstly, hares do not have the same perceptions of the world as humans and it is not accurate to ascribe human emotions such as terror to an animal which relies on instincts. The fight-or-flight instinct will drive the hare initially to hide, and then to run; however, millennia of evolution to produce this instinct have caused animals which act on it to evolve in parallel effective recovery mechanisms for when the flight has been successful. Secondly, he also neglects to mention that the hare will already be dead before being broken up; studies in overseas countries where hounds are still used have shown that the hare is killed instantly by the first hound breaking its neck.
6. In the same section, there is a statement that hares have “evolved to run at high speeds for short periods and usually can’t match the stamina of hounds that will chase and chase” but completely fails to acknowledge that the speeds available to a fit, healthy hare are far faster than hounds can match. Depending on the weather conditions of the day, it will most commonly be the case that the scent on which the hounds rely will disappear between the time of the hare running through and the hounds reaching the same point. This is a major factor in keeping the number of hares killed by hunts relatively low compared to other methods of control.
7. A note is included regarding a LACS belief from October 2015 of a hare being chased with a lamentation that “Footage was handed to police – but sadly went no further.” If it went no further that is because the footage supplied did not provide evidence to support the allegation, and so it is not reasonable to include this in the article. Further, if Mr. Luffingham is having to reach back more than 2 years to be able to find an allegation of this type, and can only mention files being prepared against 2 hunts in the 2017/18 season (which are by no means guaranteed to result in prosecution), it does not bear out his earlier inferences and insinuations regarding “illegal” hunting or the implied lack of trails or focus on rabbits discussed in point 4 above.
8. At no point does either the author or the Hare Preservation Trust mention why hares need to be controlled. Given that they are a non-native invasive species in the UK and Ireland (albeit introduced in the Iron Age) with no effective predators, and they tend to remain within a relatively small area, they can be responsible for a significant level of damage to arable crops. While farmers are often prepared to accept a certain threshold of damage by wildlife of all types, if the hares become very static in their territory it can raise the level of impact on a localised scale beyond that threshold. Shooting or other control methods employed since the Hunting Act tend to hit the populations relatively hard. Before the Act, use of traditional hunting would have encouraged the hares to move around their territory a bit more frequently and widely, spreading the damage across a larger footprint and keeping local impacts below the threshold of acceptability. Numbers killed were generally lower, and concentrated on the weaker individuals, so that in effect traditional hunting encouraged a stronger, heathier, more widely dispersed hare population. In the absence of hunting, farmers are having to rely more on the remaining forms of control which are not selective and have a higher impact on the populations.
9. There is reference to “90 per cent of people who oppose hare hunting” but no evidence of where that figure has come from.
In summary, far from being a reasoned, fact-based article, Mr. Luffingham’s effort is a very one-sided attempt to impose his own/LACS opinion/policy without using any real evidence to support it, and should either not have been published in its current form or have had a fact based counter-argument presented alongside it.