by Steve Westerman

Wharfedale Naturalist Society

Brown Hares

In a recent Nature Notes, Denis described how mountain hares are relatively common in parts of Scandinavia. Of course, in Britain we have indigenous mountain hares (Lepus timidus). Despite some wider reintroductions in the 19th C, they are now limited to parts of Scotland and the Peak District (Northern Ireland has another subspecies). More widespread, although still scarce or absent in many parts of the country, are the brown hares (Lepus europaeus) that were introduced around the time of the Roman invasion.

They keep a fairly low profile, in part because of their mainly nocturnal/crepuscular (dawn and dusk) feeding pattern, but there is a small population of brown hares on Ilkley Moor (see photograph). I particularly enjoy seeing these animals. The shape of their heads, their large eyes, and way that they move seems to convey such character.

Brown hares are members of the Lagomorph order of mammals that also includes rabbits. They are larger than rabbits and can be distinguished by the black tips to their ears and longer face. They also have longer legs, and this becomes apparent in the way they ‘stride’ at slower speeds. Another distinguishing visual feature is that when moving quickly rabbits tend to have their tails up, showing the white underside, whereas brown hares tend to have their tails down showing dark fur.

Hares and rabbits have different lifestyles. Rabbits are gregarious and use communal underground burrows. Hares are more solitary and stay above ground. They will lie-up in ‘forms’ – shallow depressions in the ground or flattened areas in grasses - that provide cover/camouflage.

Although still potentially fairly prolific, hares are less sexually productive than rabbits. They are slower to reach sexual maturity, have smaller litters, and fewer litters each year. However, predation of leverets (young hares), disease, and habitat loss are important factors limiting numbers.

The diet of brown hares consists of plants and grasses, particularly young shoots and, where available, this includes agricultural crops. Hopefully you’re not eating your dinner as you read this, but here’s something that might make them seem a little less attractive. To maximise the nutrition they can extract from this energy-light diet, both hares and rabbits eat their waste pellets directly from their own backsides – so that food passes through their digestive systems twice. Hares then deposit pellets that are generally slightly flattened, and larger than the rounder pellets of rabbits. At least now you know what to look for as evidence that brown hares are in the neighbourhood. So on that refined, uplifting note ….. Happy nature-watching!