1. Hares are considered to be a valuable game species in most European countries. Hunting needs to be sustainable and sound management of hare populations requires some knowledge of the species' demographic variability, especially regarding the breeding output, which is highly time- and space-dependent and may govern the population size and exploitability. 2. Using shooting bag analysis and placental scar counts, mean fecundity and leveret survival were estimated at four study sites with contrasting hare numbers and density trends. These demographic parameters, harvest rates and adult natural survival rates (from the literature) were incorporated into a matrix projection model to analyse the population growth rate (lambda) sensitivity and to derive indices of sustainable harvest rate (ISHR, i.e. rates compatible with lambdagreater than or equal to 1). 3. The age structure comprised 48-69% young; fecundity varied between 12.2 and 15.0 leverets per breeding female; and 85-100% of adult females bred. These data combined gave a birth-to-autumn leveret survival index of 0.14-0.29 and, when loaded into the matrix model, resulted in simulated lambdas that matched the density changes observed in the study areas. The model structure, although simple, accounted for most of the relevant biological information. 4. ISHR was 30% when derived iteratively as a function of mean values of those parameters with largest elasticities (leveret survival and doe fecundity). When environmental and demographic stochasticity were included in the model, the proportion of endangered trajectories where the density threshold was < 1 km(2) over 50 km(2) varied sharply, with small changes in harvest rate or initial population size. Small populations could only sustain less than or equal to 20% harvest rates. 5. Demographic parameters derived from killed animals during year t can be used a posteriori to understand the species' dynamics and as a baseline to modulate the shooting scheme in year t + 1. An actual sustainable shooting scheme would require an additional real-time local process that, automatically, would take all sources of change in numbers into account. A two-stage management strategy (e.g. first computing a catch-effort estimator of population size based on numbers killed very early in the shooting period, then defining flexible harvest quotas) would help managers to cope with the unpredictable dynamics of the species and resulting fluctuations in hare numbers. 6. Synthesis and applications . The results of this exploratory study suggest that sustainable shooting of hares is possible provided some local data about their dynamics are available and slightly conservative quotas are used. Modelling approaches have potential in assessing the latter, but also as a check on the coherence of the estimates of the former (comparison of observed and modelled lambda).
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