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. But how do you tell the difference?

Advertisement

Here we explain how to identify both animals, when and where in the UK to see rabbits and hares, and the key differences between the two species.

Guide to rabbits

A wild rabbit
A wild rabbit./Credit: Getty Images.

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.

Red squirrel on log

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 hares

Brown hare running through green grass towards camera
Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) on wheat field. Holt, Norfolk, spring./Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty.

What species of hare are found in the UK?

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.

How fast can a hare run?

Hares are the fastest land mammals in the country, and some 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.

What is a male and female hare called?

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

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 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!

Come February/March, you can see these usually solitary creatures acting out mating behaviour. The females will fight off the mating urges of the males, standing on their hind legs and literally ‘boxing’ with their front paws. Discover more about this phenomenon with our guide to March hares.

Hare
An adult hare – note the black ear tips, long tail and yellow eye./Credit: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.

Advertisement

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

Authors

Fergus CollinsEditor, BBC Countryfile Magazine
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement