Brown hares are perhaps one of the few introduced species that people tend to mistake for natives. Precisely when they are brought to Britain is lost in the annals of time, but archaeological evidence points to an introduction at some point during the Iron Age, while genetic data suggest these animals were brought from the Netherlands or Denmark. The Brown hare was once a common site in Britain’s agricultural land but appears to be in decline, largely as a result of habitat loss and, perhaps, continued persecution from hare coursers. Today, despite remaining widespread, their stronghold is southern England and, particularly East Anglia and Kent.
That which follows is a summary of Brown hare natural history. The detailed article for this species will follow in due course.
The Brown hare at a glance
Sits within the Lagomorpha order of mammals, in the family Leporidae (rabbits and hares). One of 32 species within the Lepus genus; appears more closely related to African than other European hares. In Britain, sometimes considered subspecies Lepus europaeus occidentalis, but seems little justification for separation from European populations. Appears to have been introduced to Britain either during the late Iron Age or early in Roman occupation.
Size: Globally head and body length ranges 40cm to 70cm (16-26 in.), with a short (7-13cm / 3-5 in.) white tail. Large (8-10cm / 3-4 in.) ears. Adults weigh 2.5kg to 7kg (5.5-15.5 lbs.) according to season and habitat.
Colour/Appearance: Larger size, long black-tipped ears, loping gait, longer hind legs, and larger (furred) paws distinguish it from rabbits. Thick black tip to ears; tail black above and white below. Fur on back is dense (red-brown, grizzled with black) and composed of three types (underfur, pile hair and guard hair) each of different length and thickness. Yellower colouration to flanks and red chest with white belly. Moults twice per year (spring and autumn). Coat light brown, with reddish tinge in winter; white, albino, black (melanistic) and sandy morphs are known.
Distribution: Native to northern, central, and western Europe and western Asia. Introduced to United Kingdom, eastern North America, southern South America (Brazil, Argentina, Chile), western Australia and New Zealand. Also introduced to several islands, including Orkney, Inner Hebrides, Isle of Man, Tasmania, the Falklands, Barbados and Reunion. Absent from most of Ireland (naturalised in northwest), most of central and western Scotland, Sardinia, Balearic Islands and much of Iberia. In Britain, replaced by Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) above ~300m (1,000ft).
Longevity: Maximum of 13 yrs in captivity. Most wild animals do not exceed 6yrs (some populations average <2yrs), although one 12yr old wild animal was recorded from Poland.
Sexing: Males called bucks; females called does. Little sexual dimorphism, although males ~5% heavier than females.
Activity: Largely nocturnal, although occasional bouts of daytime activity (esp. during breeding season). Much of day spent resting in form or grazing. Swims well, although usually only when pursued.
Territory/Habitat: Generally an animal of farmland, preferring open habitat. Seem to need mix of crops, grass, fallow, hedges and wild flower strips to provide food year-round. May be found in city parks and cemeteries, in deciduous woodland, on moors and dunes; rare in conifer forests. Does not build warrens as rabbits do; instead dig out shallow depression (‘form’) in which to crouch; deepest at rear where animal’s back end sits. Faithful to form, which becomes long and deep with prolonged use. Rely on camouflage and form for concealment from predators; very difficult to spot when crouched in form. Average adult range ~300ha, although this may be shared by several animals (UK densities 1-4 per ha), each concentrating on a different patch. No apparent territoriality. May move 1,700m from feeding to shelter each day, depending on habitat – day range usually smaller than night range.
Diet: Herbivorous; more selective than rabbits. Predominantly flowering plants in form of grasses and herbs (often cultivated); grasses dominate in summer, herbs in winter. Occasionally take cereals, strip bark (esp. during harsh weather), graze saplings, leaves, flower heads, vegetables and windfall fruit. One photographed eating cultivated strawberries from plant on farm in Suffolk during 2020. Some suggestion that they’ll eat carrion during harsh weather. Engage in ‘refection’, whereby the first soft, round pellets (caecotroph) are eaten in order to pass the material through the digestive tract again (gain protein and vitamins) – equivalent to rumination of ungulates. Secondary, hard oval faeces generally passed at night and aren’t eaten. Gut microbes become established in the leveret from mother’s milk and consumption of caecotrophs.
Reproduction: Induced ovulators; act of mating stimulates doe to ovulate (increasing chance of conception). Breed throughout most of year. Sperm present in buck’s testicles all year (winter pregnancies known), but largely inactive Oct-Nov, after which reactivation starts; complete by February and testes maintain peak weight until August. Bulk of breeding activity Feb-Oct; female averages 3 litters per year (long breeding season usually sees young born January-October, although most leverets born April onwards). Litters average 3 young (leverets), with smaller litters early and late in season (common range 1-4); large litters (up to 10) are rare. Gestation is ~42 days and leverets born above ground in nursery form, fully furred with eyes open and weighing ~110g (tripled weight by 1 month). Females leave young immediately after birth and move away to feed, returning briefly (once or twice per day for 1-5 mins) to suckle them. Leverets leave nursery form at 2-4 days old to find own hiding spot, gathering back in form ~1hr before sunset and follow female when she arrives. Start eating solid food after ~2 wks and weaned at 4-5 wks (although late litters may suckle for 3 months); fully grown by ~5 months and sexually mature at 6 months (males) or 8 months (females). Leverets (Lagomorphs in general), unlike most mammals, don’t have many micro-organisms in their digestive tract while suckling. Instead of protection being transferred in doe’s milk, an antimicrobial fatty acid (called ‘milk oil’) is produced in the leveret’s stomach (a result of enzymatic reaction to the mother’s milk) and provides some protection against enteritis.
Behaviour and Sociality: Largely solitary, although several may live in close proximity and form loose aggregations when foraging, especially during the evening. Aggregations may also form during breeding, where males establish dominance and drive off subordinate males from females. Boxing (‘Mad March’) behaviour often seen during March/April and is practiced by both sexes, although usually females fending off overzealous males. Several scent (anal, groin, and mouth) glands presumably have communicative role. Typically silent, although screams when distressed (sounding like ‘wailing child’) and makes occasional whistling and grunting noises.
Threats: Hunting (Game Bag) records suggest a significant decline in hare numbers in Britain post 1960s and this has largely been attributed to changes in farming practices. Hunting may also have been a factor and hare coursing appears to be increasing in popularity. Dead hares rarely found (other than road casualties); coccidiosis (caused by protozoan Eimeria) is often fatal to leverets in humid conditions. Apparently not susceptible to myxomatosis (occasional records, but very rare). Can be vulnerable to fox predation and some studies suggest that fox control boosts hare numbers. Other predators include bears, lynx, stoats, weasels, martens badgers, polecats and domestic cats. Some birds of prey (esp. buzzards and tawny owls) are known to take leverets, while others — goshawks, eagle owls and golden eagles — can take adults.
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