The European hare (Lepus europaeus), also known as the brown hare, is a species of hare native to Europe and parts of Asia. It is among the largest hare species and is adapted to temperate, open country. Hares are herbivorous and feed mainly on grasses and herbs, supplementing these with twigs, buds, bark and field crops, particularly in winter. Their natural predators include large birds of prey, canids and felids. They rely on high-speed endurance running to escape predation, having long, powerful limbs and large nostrils.
Description & appearanceThe European hare, like other members of the family Leporidae, is a fast-running terrestrial mammal; it has eyes set high on the sides of its head, long ears and a flexible neck. Its teeth grow continuously, the first incisors being modified for gnawing while the second incisors are peg-like and non-functional. There is a gap (diastema) between the incisors and the cheek teeth, the latter being adapted for grinding coarse plant material.
The dental formula is 2/1, 0/0, 3/2, 3/3. The dark limb musculature of hares is adapted for high-speed endurance running in open country. By contrast, cottontail rabbits are built for short bursts of speed in more vegetated habitats. Other adaptions for high speed running in hares include wider nostrils and larger hearts. In comparison to the European rabbit, the hare has a proportionally smaller stomach and caecum.
This hare is one of the largest of the lagomorphs. Its head and body length can range from 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) with a tail length of 7.2 to 11 cm (2.8 to 4.3 in). The body mass is typically between 3 and 5 kg (6.6 and 11.0 lb). The hare's elongated ears range from 9.4 to 11.0 cm (3.7 to 4.3 in) from the notch to tip. It also has long hind feet that have a length of between 14 and 16 cm (5.5 and 6.3 in). The skull has nasal bones that are short, but broad and heavy. The supraorbital ridge has well-developed anterior and posterior lobes and the lacrimal bone projects prominently from the anterior wall of the orbit.
The fur colour is grizzled yellow-brown on the back; rufous on the shoulders, legs, neck and throat; white on the underside and black on the tail and ear tips. The fur on the back is typically longer and more curled than on the rest of the body. The European hare's fur does not turn completely white in the winter as is the case with some other members of the genus, although the sides of the head and base of the ears do develop white areas and the hip and rump region may gain some grey.
Hares are primarily nocturnal and spend a third of their time foraging. During daytime, a hare hides in a depression in the ground called a "form" where it is partially hidden. Hares can run at 70 km/h (43 mph) and when confronted by predators they rely on outrunning them in the open. They are generally thought of as asocial but can be seen in both large and small groups. They do not appear to be territorial, living in shared home ranges of around 300 ha (740 acres). Hares communicate with each other by a variety of visual signals. To show interest they raise their ears, while lowering the ears warns others to keep away. When challenging a conspecific, a hare thumps its front feet; the hind feet are used to warn others of a predator. A hare squeals when hurt or scared and a female makes "guttural" calls to attract her young. Hares can live for as long as twelve years.
Distribution & habitatEuropean hares are native to much of continental Europe and part of Asia. Their range extends from northern Spain to southern Scandinavia, eastern Europe, and northern parts of Western and Central Asia. They have been extending their range into Siberia. While there is no direct evidence of them in Britain before the Romans (circa 2000 years ago) genetic evidence suggests they are indigenous. They are not found in Ireland, where the mountain hare is the only native species. Undocumented introductions probably occurred in some Mediterranean Islands. They have also been introduced, mostly as game animals, to North America (in Ontario and New York State, and unsuccessfully in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), the Southern Cone, (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) Bolivia, Chile, Peru and the Falkland Islands, Australia, both islands of New Zealand and the south Pacific coast of Russia.
Hares primarily live in open fields with scattered brush for shelter. They are very adaptable and thrive in mixed farmland. According to a study done in the Czech Republic, the mean hare densities were highest at altitudes below 200 metres (660 ft), 40 to 60 days of annual snow cover, 450 to 700 millimetres (18 to 28 in) of annual precipitation, and a mean annual air temperature of around 10 °C (50 °F). With regards to climate, the study found that hare densities were highest in "warm and dry districts with mild winters". In Poland, hares are most abundant in areas with few forest edges, perhaps because foxes can use these for cover. They require cover, such as hedges, ditches and permanent cover areas, because these habitats supply the varied diet they require, and are found at lower densities in large open fields. Intensive cultivation of the land results in greater mortality of young hares (leverets).
In Great Britain, hares are seen most frequently on arable farms, especially those with fallow land, wheat and sugar beet crops. In mainly grass farms their numbers are raised when there are improved pastures, some arable crops and patches of woodland. They are seen less frequently where foxes are abundant or where there are many buzzards. They also seem to be fewer in number in areas with high European rabbit populations, although there appears to be little interaction between the two species and no aggression. Although hares are shot as game when they are plentiful, this is a self-limiting activity and is less likely to occur in localities where they are scarce.
FoodEuropean hares are primarily herbivorous. They may forage for wild grasses and weeds but with the intensification of agriculture, they have taken to feeding on crops when preferred foods are not available. During the spring and summer, they feed on soy, clover and corn poppy as well as grasses and herbs. During autumn and winter, they primarily choose winter wheat, and are also attracted to piles of sugar beet and carrots provided for them by hunters. They also eat twigs, buds and the bark of shrubs and young fruit trees during winter. Cereal crops are usually avoided when other more attractive foods are available, the species appearing to prefer high energy foodstuffs over crude fibre. When eating twigs, hares strip off the bark to access the vascular tissues which store soluble carbohydrates. Compared to the European rabbit, food passes through the gut more rapidly in the hare, although digestion rates are similar. They sometimes eat their own green, faecal pellets to recover undigested proteins and vitamins. Two to three adult hares can eat more food than a single sheep.
European hares forage in groups. Group feeding is beneficial as individuals can spend more time feeding knowing that other hares are being vigilant. Nevertheless, the distribution of food affects these benefits. When food is well-spaced, all hares are able to access it. When food is clumped together, only dominant hares can access it. In small gatherings, dominants are more successful in defending food, but as more individuals join in, they must spend more time driving off others. The larger the group, the less time dominant individuals have in which to eat. Meanwhile, the subordinates can access the food while the dominants are distracted. As such, when in groups, all individuals fare worse when food is clumped as opposed to when it is widely spaced.
Mating & reproductionEuropean hares have a prolonged breeding season which lasts from January to August. Females, or does, can be found pregnant in all breeding months and males, or bucks, are fertile all year round except during October and November. After this hiatus, the size and activity of the males' testes increase, signalling the start of a new reproductive cycle. This continues through December, January and February when the reproductive tract gains back its functionality. Matings start before ovulation occurs and the first pregnancies of the year often result in a single foetus, with pregnancy failures being common. Peak reproductive activity occurs in March and April, when all females may be pregnant, the majority with three or more foetuses.
The mating system of the hare has been described as both polygynous (single males mating with multiple females) and promiscuous. Females have six-weekly reproductive cycles and are receptive for only a few hours at a time, making competition among local bucks intense. At the height of the breeding season, this phenomenon is known as "March madness", when the normally nocturnal bucks are forced to be active in the daytime. In addition to dominant animals subduing subordinates, the female fights off her numerous suitors if she is not ready to mate. Fights can be vicious and can leave numerous scars on the ears. In these encounters, hares stand upright and attack each other with their paws, a practice known as "boxing", and this activity is usually between a female and a male and not between competing males as was previously believed. When a doe is ready to mate, she runs across the countryside, starting a chase that tests the stamina of the following males. When only the fittest male remains, the female stops and allows him to copulate. Female fertility continues through May, June and July, but testosterone production decreases in males and sexual behaviour becomes less overt. Litter sizes decrease as the breeding season draws to a close with no pregnancies occurring after August. The testes of males begin to regress and sperm production ends in September.
Does give birth in hollow depressions in the ground. An individual female may have three litters in a year with a 41- to 42-day gestation period. The young have an average weight of around 130 grams (4.6 oz) at birth.The leverets are fully furred and are precocial, being ready to leave the nest soon after they are born, an adaptation to the lack of physical protection relative to that afforded by a burrow. Leverets disperse during the day and come together in the evening close to where they were born. Their mother visits them for nursing soon after sunset; the young suckle for around five minutes, urinating while they do so, with the doe licking up the fluid. She then leaps away so as not to leave an olfactory trail, and the leverets disperse once more. Young can eat solid food after two weeks and are weaned when they are four weeks old. While young of either sex commonly explore their surroundings, natal dispersal tends to be greater in males. Sexual maturity occurs at seven or eight months for females and six months for males.