There are two species of hare in Britain; the brown hare (Lepus europaeus) and the blue or mountain hare (Lepus timidus). The mountain hare has been resident in Britain since the last Ice Age but the brown hare was probably introduced by the Romans as food


Brown hares are larger than rabbits, with longer limbs, yellow staring eyes, reddish- brown fur with black tips on their ears. One kick from a hare’s powerful back legs, with feet measuring around 15 cm, can catapult it up to 4 metres and they can reach speeds of 45 mph in a matter of seconds. A hare’s heart contributes almost 2% of its entire body weight (as opposed to only 0.3% in a rabbit).


Brown hares are widespread on low ground across England and Scotland, but are replaced by mountain hares in upland areas of Scotland, England and Wales and by the Irish hare (a subspecies of the mountain hare) in Ireland. Although brown hares have been introduced to Northern Ireland they have not spread far.

Habitat in the UK

Brown hares live in exposed habitats, relying on their acute senses and speed to evade predators. They mainly inhabit open country preferably near areas of cover such as woodland and are most numerous on agricultural lowland. They spend most daylight hours in forms – small depressions in the ground near long grass.


Breeding takes place between February and September. The ‘mad’ behaviour normally associated with the month of March is part of the mating ritual and can take place all year round. The rapid chases are a dominant male driving away a rival and ‘boxing’ is usually a female rebuffing an over-zealous male.

A doe can rear three or four litters a year, each consisting of two to four leverets. The young are born fully furred with their eyes open and receive very little parental care, left alone in the forms and suckled once a day after sunset for the first four weeks. This avoids attracting predators whilst the leverets are vulnerable. Exposure, predation and disease kill at least 50% of the young before they reach maturity.


Hares feed at night, moving out into the open to feed on grass shoots, herbs, cereal and root crops. Although solitary creatures, they may form loose groups whilst feeding, presumably as there is safety in numbers. Foxes are the main predator and where they are present, there are likely to be few hares.


   Although still widespread throughout Britain, hare populations have decreased dramatically with numbers estimated to have declined by 80% since 1900.

   Modern farming methods are specialised and intensive, producing only one crop such as oilseed rape (monocrop) or concentrated on raising livestock. Farms with mixed outputs, which were common over a hundred years ago, provide year round grazing and shelter for hares. Modern farming machinery such as tractors and pesticides are also responsible for the deaths of many hares.

   Hares are classed as ‘game’ and therefore receive little or no legal protection despite their dwindling numbers. Hare coursing (hunting with dogs for ‘sport’) is legal unless the landowner’s permission has not been granted and this type of illegal hare coursing can be common in certain parts of the country. Farmers may shoot hares to prevent illegal coursing and poaching, or because they are causing damage to crops, which can also have a detrimental effect on hare populations.

What can be done to help?

   The brown hare Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) makes recommendations for protecting and managing land for hares.

   Agri-environment schemes, such as Countryside Stewardship, offer grants to landowners to implement wildlife- friendly farming practices. These include initiatives such as leaving untreated and unploughed ‘buffer’ strips along the edge of arable crops, reinstating hedgerows and reducing the use of chemicals.

   The proposed reform to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in particular the shift towards subsidising farmers managing their land for wildlife, rather than rewarding high levels of production, will benefit brown hares and other farmland wildlife.

• VOL 25 • No4 • April 2010 • Veterinary Nursing Journal