The endangered brown hares have recently increased significantly in Germany. In spring 2023, an average of 19 brown hares hopped per square kilometer in fields, meadows and fields. “This is an all-time high,” said the spokesman for the German Hunting Association (DJV), Torsten Reinwald, to the German Press Agency. It is the highest value since nationwide monitoring began in 2001. The dry spring of 2023 in particular provided optimal starting conditions for the offspring of rabbits. Spring is the important birth time for brown hares. In 2022, hunters across Germany counted an average of 16 animals per square kilometer.

Brown hares are widespread almost everywhere in Germany; they even occur in forest areas and urban habitats such as Berlin. However, there are differences in populations between the six major German landscapes: with an average of 28 brown hares per square kilometer, the population is densest in the northwest German lowlands, i.e. from the Danish border to the northern Rhineland. There are 21 brown hares in the southwest German low mountain ranges. The long-eared bats are comparatively rare in the northeast German lowlands with an average of 7 animals and in the foothills of the Alps with 9 animals.

“You could say that the hare is a climate change winner,” Reinwald said. As original inhabitants of the steppes, the long-eared bats would have benefited particularly from dry and warm springs. The months of April and May are the crucial time for the growth of young rabbits. “If it’s dry there and still warm, then that’s ideal,” said Reinwald. Young brown hares, on the other hand, are sensitive to cold, wet weather. Because brown hares do not have a protective cave like rabbits.

Hunters count with headlights at night

The brown hares are counted by hunters as part of wildlife monitoring in spring and autumn. It is then recorded how many animals can be discovered on a certain route at night in the light of a standardized headlight. Once again, more than 400 reference areas were counted. However, the number of areas was slightly lower because in the autumn, due to the wet weather, in some places the unharvested corn was still high in the fields, so it was not possible to count rabbits. Nevertheless, according to the hunting association, the data is comparable to that of previous years.

Brown hares are also hunted by hunters. According to the association, hunting takes place taking regional conditions into account. In some areas, hunters voluntarily refrain from hunting rabbits.

How the current offspring of rabbits will develop is still uncertain. Counting is currently underway. But there are again good starting conditions, said Reinwald. The so-called growth rate, i.e. the difference between the counts in spring and autumn 2023, was decent at 15 percent increase. Many brown hares would probably have made it through the winter, which wasn’t particularly hard. However, heavy rainfall and flooding in parts of Germany were fatal for the young brown hares, which were born early. “They had zero chances this year.”

Habitat for long-eared bats remains scarce

Overall, the brown hare population in Germany has grown in recent years. The German Wildlife Foundation estimates that at least two million brown hares (Lepus europaeus) live in Germany. However, the positive development should not obscure the long-term trend, said Andreas Kinser, head of nature and species protection at the foundation. “If we look at the last 50 years, the trend is downward.” Intensive agriculture in particular makes the landscape less varied and therefore the habitat for brown hares scarce.

“The downside is the loss of habitat. We still have a lot of room for improvement,” said the spokesman for the hunting association, Torsten Reinwald. Because brown hares need hedges, ditches and flower strips. In these “untidy corners” the nimble sprinters find their food in wild herbs such as mallow, chamomile and valerian. This also applies to other endangered species such as the field hamster or the partridge. “They need such a varied landscape,” said Reinwald.

In addition, such field edges and edges on agricultural areas give the brown hares cover from enemies. “The larger the areas become, the fewer such structures there are,” said Kinser. Above all, from the perspective of hunters and the wildlife foundation, more fallow land could help the brown hares and biodiversity as a whole. They criticize the fact that the EU has recently suspended regulations on brownfield sites for this year. From the perspective of hunters, more incentives for farmers are needed to bring nature conservation and agriculture into harmony. “It only works if we work together,” said DJV spokesman Reinwald. Measures to increase biodiversity should also pay off for agriculture.