It is thought that brown hares originated in the grasslands of central Asia and were introduced into Britain during Roman times. Brown hares are much larger than rabbits and have orangey-grey fur and very long, black-tipped ears. They live exclusively above ground in shallow scrapes that they dig out in the ground called ‘forms’. Speed is their main defence and they can run at up to 50kmph to escape predators. As they run, they tuck their tail down so that the white patch is not visible from behind, unlike rabbits whose white patch can act as a target for some predators.
Hares are mostly active at night and generally forage at dusk and dawn. Although they are mainly solitary creatures, they come together in small groups late in winter and spring evenings and regularly perform a spectacular courtship ritual. This usually involves several males chasing a female.
Breeding Hares breed from February to September and females can have up to four litters per year, each averaging four young (leverets). Females look after the leverets on their own and the young are weaned after three to four weeks.
Diet Young cereal crops, oilseed rape, wild grasses and herbs, turnips in winter.
Habitat Mainly arable farmland, grasslands with sheltered areas in long grass, hedgerows and ditches.
Predators & threats Mostly foxes but also regularly shot as game and as a pest when numerous. Road casualties can be high in certain areas.
Status & distribution In Great Britain, brown hares are scarce, or even absent, in many areas and are only abundant in the arable counties of East Anglia and Lincolnshire. In mountainous regions of Scotland (and the Derbyshire Peak District), brown hares are replaced by the mountain hare (Lepus timidus), which is also present in Ireland. Only a small number of brown hares have been recorded in Ireland, in the North West Ulster area. In the UK as a whole, there is evidence of a steep decline since the 1960s, although numbers probably declined over much of the twentieth century. More recent trends, over the last 15 years, are unclear but the population is still vulnerable to more intensive farming methods, disease and shooting. An estimated 390,000 are shot each year in Britain (around half the total population), without a close season, despite the recognition of brown hares as a ‘priority’ species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
Did you know? ‘March madness’ in hares does not refer to a period of insanity in March but to their vibrant and energetic courtship behaviour. ‘Boxing hares’ are usually females chasing off over-amorous males! They stand on their hind legs and box one another with their front paws.