In 1997 a research project, carried out by Karina Dingerkus at Queen’s University Belfast, indicated that Irish hare numbers had undergone a dramatic reduction over a period of around thirty years. This was supported by anecdotal evidence of very low numbers As a result, a Northern Ireland Species Action Plan (SAP) for the Irish hare and an Irish hare SAP Steering Group were established. In 2005 an all-Ireland Species Action Plan was published which contains strategies and targets for the conservation of Irish hares.
The Species Action Plan recommended a number of measures designed to contribute to Irish hare conservation, however it is still unknown what impact, if any, this has had on hare numbers. Stewardship schemes now offer the opportunity for farmers and landowners to contribute to habitat improvement.
Much emphasis has been placed on research into Irish hares. Hare surveys are ongoing but it will take years to establish a reliable trend in population change. While this might contribute to a long term strategy, it does little to address immediate conservation concerns. It is important that projects are subject to a species impact assessment and that effective controls are in place. This is especially important when species numbers are low so that methodology is effective and results are valid.
Meanwhile there is a strong argument for conservation strategy to be designed and implemented with due regard to the Precautionary Principle, which is the first recommendation of the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy. The Northern Ireland Assembly has failed to make the Irish hare a protected species despite an ongoing population decline and the support for this measurepermanent protection expressed by over 70% of the electorate.
The Republic’s Wildlife Act needs to be upgraded to address the Irish hare’s threatened status. Effective legislation will underpin the efforts of conservation groups working to maintain the unique presence of the Irish hare within the island’s biodiversity.