Researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Hull and the Open University have discovered that native brown hares may be benefiting from exotic, non-native crops growing across Britain’s farmland.
The study, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, shows that how crops are planted is as important as which crops are grown in determining their effects on farmland wildlife.
The research team, led by Dr Silviu Petrovan of the University of Cambridge, set out to investigate what effects biomass energy crops might have on the brown hare.
Several new crops are being planted across the UK and Europe, which are harvested and burned for fuel. They are typically planted for long-term harvests (15-25 years) and are cut annually from the same sites.
One of the most common is elephant grass. By tracking hares in farmland planted with different sized fields of elephant grass, Dr Petrovan’s team showed that the crop planted in small blocks provides an excellent habitat for brown hares, but if planted as a monoculture across large areas, was found to discourage them.
Dr Petrovan said: “What is remarkable about this study is that we have recorded some of the smallest hare annual home ranges ever, at an average of just 10 hectares.
“It suggests that, as part of a mixed agricultural landscape and planted at the right scale, elephant grass provides many of a hare’s habitat requirements in a very small area. If ranges are small it indicates that the numbers of hares an area can support is high. We think that hares use elephant grass for cover and then forage around its edges.”
Dr Phil Wheeler from the Open University, said: “In some respects, although these biomass crops are alien to the UK, they mimic unfarmed or unintensively cultivated bits of farmland, many of which have been lost as farming has intensified.
“Whether planting at small scales is economically and logistically viable for farmers is another question. If biomass crops are only viable when planted over wide areas, they may end up as another challenge to farmland wildlife.”