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

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

Rabbits

Facts about rabbits

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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Male rabbits are known as bucks, the female a does.

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

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.

A wild rabbit on the island of Skomer, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
An adult rabbit ©Mark Eastment Photography

History of the rabbit in Britain

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.

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.

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…

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.

Hares

Facts about hares

There are three types of hare in the UK: the brown hare, the mountain hare and the Irish 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.

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

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.

A male hare is called a jack, a female is a jill.

Where to see hares in Britain

Hares are usually solitary creatures but come March/April time you can see females fighting off the mating urges of the males, standing on their hind legs and literally ‘boxing’ with their front paws.

Watch these boxers in action with our top five places to see March hares.

Hare
An adult hare – note the black ear tips, long tail and yellow eye ©Gerhard Hofmann / EyeEm

What is the difference between rabbits and hares?

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

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.

What are the similarities between rabbits and hares?

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.

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