Species of the Month - March 2016: Hares

Brown hare (image: Bob Coyle)

This year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is running a new series taking a closer look at one key species of flora or fauna each month. Aptly for March, we are looking at hares… 

The brown or European hare (Lepus europaeus)

With soft tawny fur, large golden eyes and long, black-tipped ears, the hare is an enigmatic animal which inhabits both our landscapes and our legends. Adult hares normally live to 3 or 4 years but, very rarely, they can live much longer.

Brown hare (image: Margaret Holland)At around 60 centimetres long, a hare is noticeably larger than a rabbit, with its strong hind legs and long ears making it unmistakable. They don't have a particular 'home' and will sleep in any suitable place, continually shifting from one place to another. Hares' favoured habitat is open farmland and grassland, where they crouch low in shallow indentations or ‘forms’. In fact, hares spend their whole time above ground and never in underground burrows.

Running brown hare (image: Damian Waters)Though this habit would seem to offer little protection, the hare is usually well camouflaged by low vegetation. They try to avoid being noticed by lying as still as a statue, tucked in close to the ground, with their ears pressed flat along their backs, and often won't move until the last minute before it's discovered. The hare’s main defence tactic is to sprint out of danger, so a clear get-away is vital; as well as reaching speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, the hare can also turn on a sixpence while at top speed.

Hares communicate with each other by a variety of visual signals. To show interest they raise their ears, while lowering the ears warns others to keep away. The hind feet hit the ground to warn others of a predator.

'Mad' boxing hares (image: Elliott Neep)With spring and the breeding season comes the hare’s ‘Mad as a March hare’ tag. Hares take part in their characteristic exuberant ‘boxing matches’. Usually this is between a male and female, as the females not yet in season deter amorous males.

Hares can have between two and four litters of young a year, usually between February and September. The young, called leverets, are born in the open with a full coat of fur and open eyes.

During the summer, hares eat grasses, herbs and field crops. They prefer wild grasses and weeds but, with the intensification of agriculture, they have taken to feeding on crops. During the winter, they eat herbaceous vegetation, twigs, buds and the bark of shrubs and young fruit trees.

Where to see them

Though for most of the year hares emerge at dusk to feed through the night, in the spring breeding season they can be spotted out during the day. This month is a prime time to see them, as crops and grass in fields will not yet be so high that they are hidden and if you're lucky you might spot them boxing!

Mountain hare (image: Andrew Easton)Brown hares are present throughout England and Wales, but absent from northern Scotland and the Scottish Islands. Brown hares are replaced by the slightly smaller mountain hares (Lepus timidus) in upland areas of Scotland and central England. Hare numbers have declined significantly over the last hundred years. 

Creating habitats for hares

  • Hares are more at home amongst a patchwork a small fields and meadows which provide year-round feeding and shelter. 
  • When making silage, cut the field from the centre outwards rather than from the outside in, so that hares can escape the machinery into neighbouring fields.
  • Big fields mean they have to move further between fields to get the best grazing in the right season, so dividing fields up would benefit the hare.

Did you know?

In Anglo-Saxon paganism, the hare is associated with reproduction and fertility and is a symbol for the spring goddess Eostre. Its connection with Easter eggs was based on a misconception by the Europeans that lapwings laid their eggs in the homes of hares. Germanic cultures noticed the high activity of hares during the spring, and it was believed that their "mating dance" helped the earth grow.

Get in touch

If you spot any hares please do let us know! You can submit records online at Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, email them to us at records@herefordshirewt.co.uk or write to us at Lower House Farm, Ledbury Road, Hereford, HR1 1UT.