Brown Hares Lepus europaeus are the fastest land mammal in the UK and with their incredibly powerful hind legs can travel at speeds of up to 45 mph (mammal.org.uk website, 2012). They are similar in general form to Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus, with a few very identifiable differences. The most obvious is that whilst Rabbits’ combined body and head length measures around 30–40 cm, Brown Hares measure around 52–60 cm and have much longer hind legs. Brown Hares also have much longer ears with black tips. They are usually a russet-brown colour with a white underside and the tail is white underneath and black on top; when running they have a loping gait with the tail held down showing its black top. Rabbits have a brown iris whereas Brown Hares have a golden iris and a black pupil. There are some records of leucistic Brown Hares that are almost white in colour. A specimen collected in Stannington in 1964 was very close in colouration to winter phase Mountain Hare Lepus timidus, which could potentially cause confusion.
Brown Hares prefer open areas such as grassland and arable habitats, where they forage nocturnally, but they will use nearby woodlands and hedgerows to provide cover during the day. Over their global distribution they are noted to use a wider variety of habitats including marsh and saltmarsh (Flux and Angermann, 1990) and it is worth noting that around Saltholme on Teesside (which is a large area of grazing marsh, criss-crossed by numerous shallow pools and creeks), hares have been observed to plough through shallow water and also to swim on several occasions. Vesey Fitzgerald (1943) claims that they swim well and “will do so apparently for pleasure”. They do not use burrows as Rabbits do, but instead use shallow depressions to provide cover while they rest, and these dips are referred to as “forms”.
Brown Hares are most active during the early morning and at dusk, but in March they can be seen more regularly during the day as they conduct their traditional “mad March hare” boxing matches. These signal the start of their breeding season, although they are known to start breeding earlier in the year when the weather allows, so that “mad March hares” are spotted throughout spring/summer. Females produce up to four litters each year and because the young (known as leverets) are born in the forms rather than in safer burrows like Rabbits, they are born with fur and with eyes open. Leverets are also active almost immediately after birth, so they are able to escape from predators. Even so Fox Vulpes vulpes predation of leverets is the main cause of mortality (Jennings in Harris and Yalden, 2008). The home range of Brown Hares is roughly 300 hectares, and whilst generally solitary they will share this home range with other hares as they are not territorially aggressive.
Hares figure prominently in mythology across the world as animals of great guile and often associated with the supernatural (Carnell, 2010). On the North York Moors this took the form of the “Witch-hare”, an animal that causes mischief whilst eluding its pursuers until such time as some ritual makes it vulnerable. The tale ends with the hare being wounded by a dog or gun only to disappear into a building, and when the building is searched an old woman is found, out of breath and bearing the same wound (Rhea, 1985). This story is echoed in the tale of the Easington Hare, which frequented Castle Eden Dene and led greyhounds to their deaths before being tracked down and seized on the leg by a coal-black bloodhound, which had been given human milk to drink.
This close association with people and the attributing of supernatural powers may be in part explained by the hare’s curiosity, as they will often approach or follow people, sometimes quite closely. When he was a student at Durham University, Kevin O’Hara had a pet leveret called Hartley which was found when still not weaned and which became a bit of a mascot. It eventually moved off, but often when Kevin was playing rugby a hare would appear and seemingly watch the match: that is if it was a hare! Their familiarity is reflected in a number of placename references in the North East, such as Harelaw near Wooler, Hareshaw Common, Harehope and Harewalls.
Brown Hares are widespread across central and western Europe including England and Wales but are absent from northwest Scotland (Jennings in Harris and Yalden, 2008). It is not known exactly when Brown Hares first appeared in Britain but due to the lack of evidence of the species at any pre-Roman site it has been assumed that they were introduced to Britain by the Romans around 2,000 years ago and quickly became widespread across lowland England and Scotland (Corbet, 1986).
Up to the 1920s numbers of Brown Hare were high and increasing, but after that they declined until the latter half of World War II. Numbers then appear to have increased steadily, although not returning to pre-1920 levels until 1960. The decline in Rabbit numbers in the late 1950s may have helped the increase in hare numbers as they filled the niche left by the rabbits (Barnes and Tapper, 1986). Between the 1960s and 1980s the population of Brown Hares dropped dramatically (Tapper, 1992; Hutchings and Harris, 1996). It is likely that agricultural intensification was a major factor in this decline, as it led to habitat fragmentation and destruction and the loss of some vital food sources. Increases in Fox numbers, combined with shooting, poaching and coursing may also have contributed to the decline (Hutchings and Harris, 1996). The National Hare Survey in 2001 estimated the current population of Brown Hares in Britain to be between 800,000 and 1,250,000.
In Northumberland and Durham the records of Brown Hare show a dramatic increase post-2000 which is largely due to increased recording effort. In particular, a Brown Hare public recording project in the Tees Valley has shown that they are very widespread there in suitable habitats. In fact a fairly accurate outline of the urban areas of Stockton, Middlesbrough and Darlington as well as the coastal towns of Hartlepool and Redcar shows up on the distribution map as the only areas where hares are absent. Brown Hare occur in good numbers around the industrial sites and grazing marsh areas of Teesmouth, in spite of the high numbers of foxes in those areas. This appears to have long been the case, with Gill (in Page, 1905) stating: “Mr Lofthouse states that they show a particular fondness for the reclaimed areas around the Tees.” They are particularly evident at the RSPB’s reserve at Saltholme where they are an advertised part of the wildlife tourism attraction.
They are regularly encountered in upland areas dominated by grassland habitats, for example in Teesdale and much of the Cheviot Hills. In-bye fields near upland farms are favoured at times, particularly when adjacent hills are snowbound for long periods. A group of 90 has been noted in this situation in the Breamish Valley near Wooler (John Steele, pers. comm., 2012). They also appear to be relatively common on the moorland edge along the A171, particularly around Birk Brow, at least if casual records of road kill are anything to go by. As can be seen from our distribution map, they are widespread throughout the lowlands even occurring on Lindisfarne. Twenty-three hares were counted as part of a farmland bird survey in 5 km2 of mixed farmland/woodland on the edge of the Cheviots (John Steele, pers. comm., 2012). This area was heavily keepered to reduce the number of foxes so may have resulted in artificially high numbers of hares, with a similar situation likely to occur in much of the Cheviots where grouse keepers legitimately control ground predators.
Flux and Angermann (1990) considered that Brown Hares were probably the most important game animal in Europe and they have been hunted by various means in the North East. The earliest reference to hunting the hare in our region is in 1766 when “some gentlemen were hunting on Gateshead Fell the hare and three hounds fell into an old pit hole and were drowned” (Page, 1905). Since then hares have been hunted with beagles and harriers and coursed legally and illegally with greyhounds and lurchers across the region. The Weardale Beagles were the last pack to hunt in County Durham, and at one time Brown Hares were regularly hunted along the military road in Hadrian’s Wall country with a beagle pack that was kept in the area. Organised hare coursing was once popular, with numerous small meets organised across the region and persisting until recent years. Kevin O’Hara (pers. comm., 2012) remembers organised coursing events in the hills around Sunderland until the 1970s, when the construction of the A19 stopped them as its route went right through the main area near Doxford International. Many Durham miners had their own small scale events to try greyhound and whippet, and in some cases the “hare” was nothing more than a piece of rag tied to a string with an upturned old bicycle being used to wind in the string very quickly around the wheel frame. Hares were coursed illegally using greyhounds, whippets and lurchers either by day or at night with lamps. Despite the Hunting Act (2004) making this illegal it still occurs across the region.
Despite continued illegal persecution and also legitimate shooting which controls numbers locally, on balance it seems that the patchwork of land uses and habitats in the North East, and the control of foxes in certain areas, suits Brown Hares, as they are still widespread across the whole region and even common in places.
Written by Rhia McBain and Ian Bond (last updated Nov 12)