Although not native to the UK, hares are a beautiful part of the countryside landscape. Initially introduced as food and fur, the hare has naturalised and made the UK its home. Seldom seen and often mistaken for rabbits when they are glimpsed, hares have gained an almost mystical beauty.
Definitely not a rabbit
Hares are often mistaken for rabbits, although the two species are different both in form and habit. Hares are larger, with longer ears and black markings, although their fur is similar in colour. Their living habits differ radically, too; hares do not burrow but live a nomadic life, raising their young on the move. Their young, which are called leverets, are born ready for this lifestyle, with their eyes already open and their bodies fully-furred.
How they live
Hares are solitary, rather than living in groups, although they are not thought to be territorial. Mating occurs 3-4 times a year, when hares can be seen ‘boxing’. This was originally thought to be a behaviour typical to male hares, but we now know that female hares also ‘box’ with males. Young hares are called leverets, and are born in litters of around 2-4. Before birth, the female will ‘nest’ in a shallow depression in the ground, often beside a tussock for shelter, lining the ground with soft fur from her own belly. Leverets are active from birth.
What they eat
Hares are herbivorous, grazing almost constantly on a diet of grasses and bark from trees and bushes. Changes in human food production has affected the population of hares, among other woodland creatures; as intensive farming has replaced mixed farming, some of the grassy habitats required by hares has been removed from the landscape.
Reaching speeds of around 35-45 mph, the hare is definitely the UK’s fastest land mammal. It prefers to lope in a leisurely fashion, however, using its astonishing speed and zig-zag pattern mainly to escape predators. A hare will conserve its energy for such lightning speed runs, usually hiding by flattening itself to the ground and remaining perfectly still.
It is thought that the hare population in the UK is around 800,00 although their natural caution makes them difficult to monitor. Their species has declined by around 80% over the last century, which may be due in part to changes in farming techniques. Intensive farming makes it harder for hares to raise their young, as they require a variety of grasses. Hares are also hunted by humans in some parts of the country; unlike seasonal game such as deer, hares can be hunted all year round. Another, more recent, threat to hare populations is the possibility that myxomatosis may have spread to hares from rabbits.
Hares can be very difficult to spot. Wary of humans, nocturnal and super fast, hares can be very difficult to spot. Very early morning is probably the best time. And although hares are active all year round, springtime is often thought to be the best time to look out for them, when you may be lucky enough to see a pair ‘boxing’ in a field.
You can help hares by joining your local Wildlife Trust