At a distance hares look like large rabbits and are best distinguished by their behaviour. Hares are usually solitary, and when they are disturbed they have a distinctive lolloping gait and much longer legs than a rabbit. When running, the ears are
usually held flat along the back and the tail rarely flashes white, they do not go to ground and may run in a wide arc. Hares are generally seen in open fields or young arable crops, whereas rabbits usually stay close to their warrens at the edges of fields and woodland. Closer to, the hare has long ears with marked black tips. The fur is more ginger than that of the rabbit. Adult females can grow to 4.5 kg and 700 mm long, whereas males reach about 4.1kg. Hares can run at high speeds over long distances and when running the tail is held down so that the dark upper surface, rather than pale underside, is visible. When moving across fields they may be observed to leap sideways, possibly in order to break any scent trail that could be followed by a predator.
© Di Northey
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Boxing hares in the spring are usually females repelling the advances of males during courtship. Brown hare populations may increase when myxomatosis has reduced the rabbit populations. Hares are considered ill omens in some cultures and witches were supposed to take the form of hares. The hare was the original ‘Easter bunny’ being the sacred animal of Eastre, the Saxon goddess of spring.
Droppings are similar to the familiar rabbit droppings but tend to be larger and paler, often deposited in shallow scrapes. Tracks are similar to those of rabbit, but much larger with the hind foot up to 15 cm long. The print of an adult hare will be about 3 cm wide, the same as a standard matchbox, whereas that of the rabbit will be noticeably less - perhaps 2.5 cm. The form, where the hare rests during the day, may be found in open fields - a shallow depression which may have been cleared of leaves, and often shielded by a grass clump or stone on the upwind side. In the winter the form may just be a scraped hole in the snow, sometimes with the impression of the two rear feet.
Brown hares are solitary animals of open country, living above ground and feeding
mainly at night. The hare is most common in arable areas. During the day they
shelter in shallow scrapes, known as forms. Hares seem to have spread from the
open grasslands of central Asia following the development of arable agriculture.
They were probably introduced to Britain by the Romans.
Brown hares eat young cereal crops, oilseed rape, wild grasses and herbs, and root crops and tree bark in the winter. Hares benefit from the introduction of uncultivated strips in arable fields and this, along with enhanced crop diversity, can lead to dramatically increased numbers.
Hares breed from February to September and may raise up to 4 litters of 1-4
leverets each year after a gestation of 42 days. The leverets are born fully furred
and with eyes open and are active within one hour. The young remain immobile and
inconspicuous under cover whilst the mother is feeding and they are weaned by 3-4
weeks. Hares and rabbits are unusual among mammals in that their young are left
alone for much of the time, relying on concealment to protect them from predators.
Although hares are not territorial, during the breeding season dominant males
chase off subordinates from breeding does. The males (known as bucks or jacks) use
scent-mark clumps of grass from glands under their chins; they also urinate on their
feet and kick out to spread the scent. During courtship the females (known as jills)
may fend off males by standing on their back legs and ‘boxing’.
Although most hares die during their first year, they can live up to 12 years. Adult
brown hares are predominantly preyed upon by foxes. They rely on speed to escape
predators and have been recorded at 50 km/hr. In some areas they are controlled as
a pest species and are also shot as game. Illegal hare coursing still takes place in
some areas. Road traffic casualties can also be significant.
The brown hare has a patchy, fragmented distribution and is probably under-recorded across Cornwall, due in part to the confusion with rabbits and its nocturnal habits. Recent records are from the north coast and Bodmin Moor and records suggest that numbers have declined in Cornwall. It occurs across Europe and has been introduced to North and South America as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Hunting hares in Cornwall was common in the 19th century, with records of more than a dozen killed in one day at St Anthony in Roseland. In St. Clether a milk white hare was killed by hounds in 1831.
Road casualty records
The brown hare is not specifically protected, indeed it is an important game species for which there is no close season. However, it is also a Cornish and national BAP species (the only non-native species to have this distinction). Numbers have declined nationally by about 80% in the last century and the estimated population is now about 1 million individuals. This may be a result of changing farming practices: in the South West this includes the use of fast silage-cutting equipment and increased stocking densities, which may displace resting hares and their leverets.