Wildlife guide: what’s the difference between rabbits and hares?

Can you tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Our expert guide explains the key differences between rabbits and hares, history of the species and the best places to see

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What’s the difference between rabbits and hares?

Here we explain how to identify a rabbit and a hare and the key differences between the species

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A wild rabbit on the island of Skomer, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
An adult rabbit. By Mark Eastment Photography
Close-Up Of Hare On Grassy Field
An adult hare. Note the black ear tips, longer tail and yellow in the eye. By Gerhard Hofmann / EyeEm

History of the rabbit in Britain

1. It’s thought the rabbit arrived in Britain not long after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They were initially spread throughout Europe from the Iberian Peninsular by the Romans although they appear not to have reached Britain until 700 years after the Romans left.

2. Rabbits were domesticated for meat in the early middle ages and were kept in extensive walled enclosures called warrens. At one Christmas feast in the mid 1200s held by Henry III, 500 hares and 200 rabbits were eaten.

3. Larger than a rabbit, a hare has proportionally longer ears and back legs than a rabbit. Its ears have a black tip.

4. In order to get full nutritional value out of its grass and herb food, a rabbit or hare must pass it through its system twice – it eats its own droppings. This method is known as refection. It also means that the animals spend less time out in the open grazing and can do some of their secondary ‘eating’ in safe hideaways.

5. The main predators of rabbits and hares are foxes, weasels, stoats, polecats, buzzards and golden eagles.

6. Rabbits are very alert to danger and will thump hind legs on the group to warn others of approaching threat. When in danger, a rabbit will bolt for its nearest hole.

7. Hares have been recorded running at up to 72kmh (45mph) to escape danger.

8. While hares live singly or in very loose groups, rabbits live in colonies of several dozen animals with strict hierarchies and social groups within the colony.

9. A male hare is called a jack, a female is a jill. With rabbits, the male is a buck, the female a doe.

10. The idea of the Easter bunny comes from pre-Christian northern Europe. The goddess Eostre or Eastre presided over spring festivals and the hare was believed to be her favourite animal. Hares and rabbits also symbolised the fruitfulness and fecundity of spring and with the appearance of many birds’ eggs at the same time, the ideas of Easter bunnies, eggs and new life have become intertwined. Where chocolate comes in is another story…

11. In medieval and early modern times, the rabbit was a symbol for lust and portrayed as a companion of goddess of love in works of art such as Cosimo’s painting of Venus.  

12. The rabbit breeding season lasts between January and July. During a single season, a female may have four or five litters each containing an average of five youngsters.

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13. Few rabbits live beyond their second year. The vast majority (75 per cent) perish in their first three months of life.