The widespread decline of the European brown hare (Lepus europaeus) in Europe has been attributed to both bottom-up and top-down factors, as well as climate change. Few studies have attempted to study the relative importance of these factors considered simultaneously. In this study we tested the hypotheses that hare population density is regulated by bottom-up (food), top-down (predation) or abiotic factors including tidal floods and climatic conditions. We related data on hare population density on a relatively isolated island to changes in surface area of suitable vs. unsuitable vegetation for forage, predator densities, flooding parameters and climatic variables. During the study period (1996–2012), hare numbers decreased from 580 to 219. Estimated population density was positively correlated with the cover of short, intermediate successional vegetation types and was negatively correlated with the cover of tall, late successional vegetation types. These findings corroborate results from earlier experimental studies that reported a strong aversion of hares to tall vegetation. Additionally, we found indications that raptor population density and unusually high floods also exerted negative effects on hare population density. We conclude that bottom-up factors (the availability of suitable forage) are the main regulators of the studied hare population. This suggests that the importance of bottomup effects has been underestimated and could explain leporid population decline in areas that have experienced a similar increase in tall, unsuitable vegetation.
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Vol. 22 • No. 1