News - November 29, 2012

First catch your hare

There are ten hares on Schiermonnikoog island off the north coast of the Netherlands with a transmitter around their necks.

Fifteen volunteers advance in formation to catch their hares
Not for fun but for the good of science. The animals are part of a study by VHL teacher and PhD student Martijn Weterings. Not one to 'seek a hare in a hen's nest', he knew where to look...
The Dutch language is full of expressions and proverbs referring to hares. So my fellow editors had a wordplay ball with when I announced I was going after hares on Schiermonnikoog. Turns out the English language is not short of hare idioms either. The story of a far from hare-brained PhD research project with a peppering of English sayings. 
First catch your hare
'First catch your hare': thought to have been the first line in an old recipe for hare stew; used to mean 'first things first', often if someone is planning ahead without having taken the first step.
The hares of the Netherlands are not thriving. In fact, their numbers are shrinking rapidly. The question is why. 'We think their decline has something to do with the landscape,' explains co-promoter Sip van Wieren (Resource Ecology). 'Intensive agriculture has changed the landscape a lot, making it more large-scale and uniform. It is also much more homogeneous in terms of the food supply it offers. We think that hares in these homogeneous areas fall prey to predators more easily. They have to run longer and faster to get to safety. And running takes a lot of energy, which is to the detriment of reproduction. This reduces the sense of safety, leading to stress. Stress burns up energy and affects immunity. Chronic stress can end up being fatal to the hare.'
'Predators have an impact on how hares move around in a landscape,' adds Weterings. 'Hares move around differently in a homogeneous landscape than in a heterogeneous one. They can't just dive into a corner to hide. My guess is that predation has a bigger negative impact in a homogeneous landscape. Perhaps they even start avoiding open areas because of the presence of predators. In my research I want to identify the mechanisms underlying the decline of the hare.' Weterings is doing that by literally first catching his hares. And fitting them out with transmitters.
Haring around
'To hare off/ away/ around': to rush off, speed away.
Armed with nets, an army of fifteen volunteers (mainly Wildlife Management students from VHL Leeuwarden) set off in pursuit of the hares of Schiermonnikoog. They cornered them between poles 13 and 14, where they advanced in formation and chased them into nets. Every time a hare went haring into the net there was a piercing cry like that of a very angry baby. 'I had never heard them scream like that,' says Van Wieren. 'You don't normally get to hear that. But they are scared and stressed. Angry too, maybe.' The hares do not give up easily. Tying on the transmitter is quite a job. Two people have to hold the animal down while Weterings attaches the transmitter. In deep concentration. It is a new experience for him too. To make sure it is all done properly he has brought hare expert Marco Zaccaroni in from Italy. After two days of haring around Schiermonnikoog, 14 hares have been caught and 10 of them now sport a transmitter. Weterings is very happy with the score.

(Attaching a transmitter is quite a job at first)
With the hare or the hounds?
'To run with the hare and with the hounds' is to try to keep on good terms with both sides in a conflict.  
Also in the field on the island is Rob Steenmans, who keeps an eye on animal welfare in animals used in Wageningen University experiments and advises the Animal Experiments Committee (DEC). He is critical of what he sees. 'When this test was registered there was talk of minimal distress but in the ethical monitoring done by the DEC there was a suspicion that the distress could be a bit more than that. I am here to get a clear impression of the level of distress. I might also be able to make some suggestions for fine-tuning the experiment.' After one day of catching hares he has already changed his view on the study. 'I now gauge the distress to be moderate or even higher than that. After capture, the hares are kept in a crate for a couple of hours and only after they have all been caught are the collars put on them. The hares have a big stress reaction to this. What is more, they are rounded up by a dog on a long lead to simulate a predator.' Steenmans is clearly on the hare's side. But another issue comes up at the end of the process. Co-promoter Van Wieren is in favour of shooting the hares at the end of the experiment to retrieve all the expensive transmitters ('1500 euros apiece'). Because it won't be easy to catch all the hares again. That much is clear after this weekend. Perhaps you can't run with the hare and with the researchers. 
Let the hare sit
'Let the hare sit': a traditional idiom meaning 'have patience', 'wait and see'.  
To find out how hares react to predators you need to have a predator to hand. In Weterings' experiment, that is Diva, a Labrador. In the next month, Weterings will walk through the area with Diva on a lead for a couple of hours every day for 12 days. There will then be five days' break, followed by another spate of walks. 'You are scaring them stiff, really,' says Van Wierien. And the transmitters (equipped with a GPS and speedometer) record exactly how the hares react to this treatment. Weterings can then read the data on a special receiver. This works as long as you are at less than 400 metres distance from the hare. 'An incredible luxury,' says Van Wieren. 'You used to have to stand at 20 metres'  distance. And of course you can never get that close to a hare.'
This part of Schiermonnikoog is a practically perfect research area, explains Weterings. 'Hardly anyone comes here and apart from a few birds of prey there are virtually no natural enemies.' In this area, Weterings compares the behavior of hares on a (homogeneous) mudflat to that of others in a (heterogeneous) dune area. At a future stage of this study, hares will be monitored in a similar way on the mainland, where there are predators such as foxes and polecats. Weterings: 'That way I can compare areas with and without true predators.' But he will have to let the hare sit a while because that stage is still far off.

(Ten hares fitted with transmitters are free again for a while on Schiermonnikoog)