The European Brown Hare Lepus europaeus (or le lièvre d'Europe to its French friends) is a mostly solitary animal, seen in fields, cultivation, woods and forest margins. Unlike its cousin the rabbit it doesn't dig a warren, but shelters in a shallow depression in the ground, under long grass or a bush. Hares, weighing between 2.5 and 7 kg, are much larger than wild rabbits (a large rabbit is the size of a small hare). They can be distinguished by their big, black tipped ears and large eyes placed high on the head. At the end of winter and often into spring you might be lucky enough to see adults pursuing one another and even turning on each other to 'box' as unwilling females fend off over-eager males in the mating season.
The hare population in France is vulnerable at present, mainly due to habitat loss following the increasing intensification and monocultural nature of broadacre farming. Although traditionally an important petit gibier (small game) species, the current numbers will not sustain hunting. The Féderation de chasseurs recognises this and in many places it is not permitted to hunt them in an effort to allow their numbers to recover.
But in late January a special hunting session was organised, near Neuillé-Pont-Pierre, north of Tours. Neither guns nor dogs were allowed, even though this is one place where the hare population has increased to the point where they are causing economic damage to crops. The aim of this hunt was to capture the hares and relocate them to Saint-Branchs, 60km away on the other side of the Loire, south of Tours, where hare numbers are very low. Forty registered hunters, local residents and farmers turned up to help with this exercise, despite the rain and the freezing wind.
The hunters first erected a net across a wide open field sown with wheat. The plan was to capture about 20 hares from a 100ha area, then release them where hare numbers were at about half the density and hunting them has been completely forbidden for a few years. The hunters then divided into beaters and catchers. The beaters formed a line parallel with the net and walked slowly towards it, driving the hares before them. The catchers spread out behind the net, alert for any hare heading towards them. They took care to act so as the hares remained as calm as possible, but inevitably these nervous animals panicked and hurtled into the net. The catchers worked as quickly as possible to disintangle each hare, despite its struggling and squealing. Once free of the net the hares were placed in wooden crates for their trip to their new home.
A video of the operation can be seen here.
PS: The above post is largely as reported in the Nouvelle République. Subsequently, Roger Hale of the Hare Conservation Trust made a detailed comment (see below) outlining his concerns about the practice of relocating hares.