The number of Irish hares in Northern Ireland almost halved because people are flaunting the law banning its hunting, a pressure group claimed today.
The League Against Cruel Sports called for a permanent prohibition to be put in place after the population dropped to 98 this year.
This is the lowest recording since measures were taken to protect the creature in 2002.
The League’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager Louise Robertson said: “This drastic fall in hare numbers should be a wake-up call to politicians to use the review of the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985 to do what the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want and give this species permanent protection.”
She said it was legal to course (hunt) brown hares but not Irish hares and warned some people may not be able to tell the difference.
“I think there are problems with enforcement because people can still course brown hares but not the Irish hare. How many can actually tell the difference?
“We think it causes problems in the consistency and enforcement of this.”
In 2008, 187 Irish hares were observed compared to 98 this year.
Ms Robertson added: “These new findings are a clear sign that this threatened endemic species needs greater protection measures before the population reaches a low from which it cannot recover.”
At present the protection order is renewed annually by the government. Former Environment Minister Angela Smith fought a successful legal battle in 2005 against local coursing clubs which had challenged her special preservation order for the species.
A recent opinion poll for the League showed 71% of people in Northern Ireland wanted full protection granted to the Irish hare.
However, the Countryside Alliance has pointed to growing Irish hare population levels in the past.