WILDLIFE experts have voiced fears over the future of the brown hare after dozens of them have been found starved to death in remote parts of the North-East.

The hares, whose numbers have already fallen dramatically in the past 50 years, have been the victims of the worst snowstorms to sweep across the region for decades.

Farmers and gamekeepers have reported finding them dead in derelict barns and buildings in areas such as Upper Teesdale and Upper Weardale, in County Durham, and in North Yorkshire, where they have been searching desperately for food.

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Those that have managed to survive have been feeding in gardens and on rubbish left in backyards in villages.

“The hares have had to put up with some of the worst weather conditions for decades, making it almost impossible for them to survive,”

said Jim Cokill, director of the Durham Wildlife Trust.

“But it’s amazing how hardy our wildlife can be.

These things tend to come in cycles, so we are hoping they will be given time to recover.”

Mr Cokill appealed to farmers and other landowners to give the hares “a breathing space” by stopping shoots on their land.

Along with Natural England and other organisations, the trust has been taking part in a survey, run by the Durham Biodiversity Partnership, which has been tracking changes in the brown hare population for the past five years. The results of this are expected shortly.

During the late 1800s the hare population of Britain was about four million, but this has shrunk by 80 per cent, with the biggest decline coming in the Sixties, mainly due to changes in farming practices involving an increase in machinery and the use of pesticides.

There has also been an increased level of diseases among hares and many are killed by foxes and poachers.

Gamekeepers in areas such as Upper Teesdale have been made starkly aware of the crisis facing the hare population.

“I can’t recall it ever happening before, but I have not seen a single live brown hare this year,” said Lindsay Waddell, head keeper for Raby Estates and chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Association.

“But we have been finding dead ones in old barns and other buildings, where they have been searching for hay to feed on.”

Mr Waddell said the hares were finding it impossible to feed on the fields and fells because of “a rock-hard crust” of ice which had remained intact below recent falls of soft snow, making it impossible for the hare to forage for food. There has also been very little wind to blow away the snow, which has helped the ice to form.”

Mr Waddell pointed out that although hares were much bigger, they were not as tough as rabbits, which have largely managed to emerge unscathed in the severe snowstorms.

Unlike rabbits, hares also live above ground.

Another victim of the snow has been the hill partridge. Mr Waddell estimated that numbers of these had decreased dramatically in the Durham dales by up to 80 per cent.