CIRENCESTER’S March Hare Festival has been applauded for not only being a fun event for the family this Easter but also raising awareness of local wildlife.

The Hare Festival was launched last month in Cirencester town centre, with national celebrity Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen unveiling his vintage-style hare to a large crowd.

Residents and visitors have been eagerly trailing all 25 colourful five-foot hare statues decorating the town and surrounding areas.

Yet one campaigner, Rodney Hale of South West Action for Hares said although the festival was a happy occasion, it was not doing enough to highlight the plight of the elusive mammal.

“The brown hare has suffered a 75 per cent national population decline since the 1960s,” said Mr Hale.

“In theory, hares are protected by the Hunting Act 2004 which makes it illegal to hunt them with packs of dogs.

“But the legislation is weak and easily circumvented by those who believe they are above the law.”

Festival organiser Florence Beetlestone defended the event saying conserving and promoting wildlife was a key aim.

“The hare is a very special animal and very important to Cirencester,” she said.

“The festival is designed to make people aware of local wildlife, including hares.”

The hare models will be going under the hammer in October and are expected to raise £50,000 for a project led by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to create a wild walkway around the River Churn.

Florence said as well as increasing children’s knowledge of hares through education and school trips, the walkway was likely to create new habitats for hares.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust is in partnership with the March Hare Festival. GWT director of conservation Colin Studholme said the hare population in the Cotswolds was healthy.

“The last time the Trust did a survey was in the late 1990s and that indicated a heavy population of hares in the Seven Vale and Cotswolds area,” said Mr Studholme.

“We have no reason to believe this has changed.”

A spokesman from Gloucestershire Police said that public awareness of illegal hare coursing was key to helping police tackle the issue.