Diet selection by hares (Lepus europaeus) in arable land and its implications for habitat management
Populations of European hares (Lepus europaeus) have experienced a dramatic decline throughout Europe in recent decades. European hares are assumed to prefer weeds over arable crops, and weed abundance was reduced by the intensification of agriculture. Therefore, modern agriculture has been blamed as a major factor affecting European hare populations. However, it is questionable whether European hares select weeds at all, as previous studies had major methodological limitations. By comparing availability and use of plants with Chesson’s Electivity Index, we investigated whether the European hare actually feeds selectively on different plants in arable land. Food availability and use were dominated by cultivated crops (e.g. winter wheat, spring barley and sugar beet). Diet selection analysis revealed that in autumn and winter, European hares predominantly preferred cultivated crops (winter wheat) and food items provided by hunters (tubers of sugar beet and carrot). In spring and summer, apart from soy, only weeds (e.g. clover and corn poppy) were positively selected, especially after cereal crops were harvested. We suggest that the decline in European hare populations throughout Europe was facilitated by the decrease in weed abundance. Wildlife-friendly set-asides in arable land have the potential to reconcile the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy with wildlife conservation.