Guide to rabbits and hares: what's the difference, where to see and species history
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 them
Ubiquitous in the British countryside, rabbits have been one of our most successful imports, with large populations in the wild as well as domesticated rabbits being one of the UK's favourite pets. Its cousins, hares, are less prolific and certainly more shy. It's a characteristic sign of spring to see them out in the wild, boxing in late February and March. Rabbits and hares are known collectively as Lagomorphs. But how do you tell the difference?
Guide to rabbits
Where do rabbits live?
Rabbits are widespread across the UK, and their natural habitat is in meadows, grasslands and woodlands. They live in family groups, in large networks of burrows underground called warrens. While you may see them in fields while out walking, they are unlikely to linger if you approach. 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.
When is the rabbit breeding season?
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.
What is a male and female rabbit called?
Male rabbits are known as bucks, the females are does.
What is a baby rabbit called?
Baby rabbits are called kittens or kits, and are born with closed eyes, no fur and unable to regulate their own body temperature. The later in the spring a rabbit is born, the less likely it is to be killed by a hard frost. Few rabbits live beyond their second year. The vast majority (75 per cent) perish in their first three months of life.
Are rabbits native to the UK?
Rabbits are not native animals, but they have been here for more than 1,000 years. It’s thought they arrived 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.
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.
More like this
What is myxomatosis?
If you have seen rabbits with puffy, swollen eyes when driving or walking in the countryside, there's a chance it was infected with myxomatosis.
Myxomatosis is a severe disease that's prevalent among wild rabbits. It most noticeably affects the eyes, nose and genitals: causing swelling, redness, discharge, lethargy, problems breathing and a loss of appetite. The acute form can kill a rabbit within 10 days of the first symptoms.
Myxomatosis first reached the UK in the 1950s and nearly wiped out the wild rabbit population. It has been used in some countries as a form of rabbit population control, but not in the UK. It is spread through blood-sucking insects, such as ticks, mosquitos, fleas and mites. Domestic rabbit owners are strongly advised to get their pets vaccinated to help protect it against the disease, which is nearly always fatal.
The disease only affects rabbits and cannot be passed to humans or other animals.
Where did the Easter Bunny come from?
The idea of the Easter bunny comes from ancient pagan religions of 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…
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. It's still seen in literature, film and TV with the likes of Peter Rabbit, Watership Down and, for very young viewers, Bing.
Guide to brown hares
What species of hare are found in the UK?
There are three types of hare in the UK: the brown hare Lepus europaeus, the mountain hare Lepus timidus and the Irish hare Lepus timidus hibernicus, which as its Latin name suggests, is a subspecies of the mountain hare.
The brown hare is the most common and you’re most likely to see these on arable farmland and large, flat expanses of grassland. The open plains of Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are a stronghold for brown hares, as are the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire.
Brown hares have golden brown fur and a white belly, and they have long ears with black tips. At full pelt, they can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
Mountain hares are found in Scotland and the north of England, largely in upland areas. They are smaller than brown hares and have the ability to turn white in winter to blend with snow.
Irish hares are found in Ireland and are smaller than brown hares. Unlike mountain hares, they rarely change colour in winter. They are thought to be the only native species of Lagomorph in the British Isles (rabbits and hares were both introduced by humans).
How fast can a hare run?
Hares are the fastest land mammals in the country, and some have been recorded running at up to 72kph (45mph) to escape danger.
What is a male and female hare called?
Like rabbits, male hares are bucks and females are does. Male hares are also known as jacks, and females jills.
What is a baby hare called?
A baby hare is called a leveret. It is born to run, literally; they weigh less than an iPhone at birth, but are open-eyed and active. The little family scatters within days, meeting up after sunset for a brief, single feed from the doe. They grow while the crops around them reach their own shimmering heights, and after barely a month, are weaned. Most does will not breed in their year of birth, although after that may have up to three litters a year.
Where to see hares in Britain
Hares are widespread across the UK, but they are common on some Wildlife Trust and National Trust sites. Look for them in arable farmland, meadows and grassland that's near woodland or well-established hedgerows, where they have plenty of options for shelter. Get up early – and come without your dog!
Track them by looking out for tufts of fur caught in brambles and barbed wire, or their droppings on the ground, which resemble those of a rabbit, but are larger, with a slightly tapered end. The best time to spot hares is either first thing in the morning or early evening.
Why do hares box?
Mad March hares have been a staple of the English language for at least 500 years, and no doubt caught the eye of rural communities long before that. The term refers to how hares become even more energised in spring and will, chase each other, rearing up and sparring with their front paws. Fur often flies!
The hare's world is mostly male-dominated – that is, bucks outnumber does, even as embryos. When a doe nears oestrus (when she is fertile and ready to mate), a buck guards her, boxing and biting any other males who dare to approach. He urinates on his rear paws and kicks backwards to scent-mark, but the doe will fight him, too, if he courts her too soon. She will also box other males, testing their strength and suitability for mating.
Boxing hares are usually reported in February and March but may take place all through spring and summer. The big difference is that later in the year the crops and meadows have grown tall, hiding the hares' activities.
Discover more about this phenomenon with our guide to March hares.
What is the difference between rabbits and hares?
Hares are much larger than rabbits, weighing up to 4kg while a large rabbit is half that weight.
Rabbits are small, highly sociable, and dwell in extensive underground warrens in colonies of several dozen animals with strict hierarchies and social groups. They are rounder, an easier fit for life in a burrow, and move with a scurrying hop that lacks the leggy purposefulness of their open air-living cousin’s angular kicks.
The hare’s ears – all 10cm of them, tipped with vivid black as if drawn with a cartoonist’s Sharpie pen – are an unmistakable trademark. Rabbits’ eyes are dark while hares have amber- (or topaz) coloured irises.
Hares in folklore
There is much folklore about the hare. Samuel Pepys carried a hares-foot which he believed cured him of colic, but death was on the minds of Derbyshire miners if a white hare stared at them while they ate – this eerie creature would lead hapless souls into the darkness, never to be spied again.
Romans, despite forsaking Celtic taboos about eating hares, added the species to their own beliefs as a symbol of fertility and renewal. A grazing hare stars in an richly ornate Roman mosaic unearthed in Cirencester, a discovery celebrated in the 21st century by the colourful fibreglass hares on display in the town.
Hares have assumed a side role during Christianity’s most important celebration. It is true that eggs were painted at Easter long before the Osterhase – literally, the Easter hare – crossed the North Sea from Protestant districts of Germany, but in its own country, children were already alert for this magical animal that hid eggs in herb gardens. Oddly, the Leicestershire village of Hallaton independently acquired an ancient hare-related tradition of its own: what it calls a hare pie – which never contained any hare – was flung to a riotous crowd as an annual scramble on Easter Monday.
These days, rabbits have stolen the hare’s Easter thunder, and the Osterhase is known universally as a bunny.
Why are Britain's hares declining?
Hares are a species of farmland, and over two thirds of Britain is agricultural so it would seem hares ought to be common. Yet, like the animal itself, agriculture twists and turns, and its ever decreasing ability to carry nature is a matter of profound concern.
Their distribution in Britain tells the story. Hares have acquired a south-eastern slant – the intensive sheep grazing of the south-west excludes them. Cattle grazing creates better hare habitat than sheep pasture, but arable fields remain a critical support system, especially where hare-friendly measures such as patches of undisturbed cover are mixed in. Like so many species, hares benefit most from a mixed agricultural landscape rather than one devoted to a specific crop.
There are other difficulties; rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus has been recorded in hares, and more commonly, poaching haunts the species. Hare coursing is a terrible business on all levels. Apart from the cruelty to hares, it causes distress to rural communities and is often linked with wider rural crime. The hare – always listening, always watching – is sadly wise to maintain what one a Victorian writer called a “passion of fear”, but it is time to give something new to the hare: a land where it can relax, at least from overt fear of us.
The main natural predators of rabbits and hares are foxes, weasels, stoats, polecats, buzzards and golden eagles.