Rabbits and hares are among our most familiar mammals. From Peter Rabbit to Alice in Wonderland’s Mad March Hare, they are ingrained in our culture and heritage. Yet only the mountain hare is native: the brown hare and the rabbit were introduced. There is ongoing debate about the exact date of these introductions, but the most recent evidence suggests that they have been around in Britain since at least Roman times and were probably introduced to Ireland slightly later. Given this long history of presence, they are considered naturalised, and play important roles in our ecosystem. For example, they are key dietary components of many predatory species, and populations of foxes, stoats and birds of prey all responded to the sudden decline in rabbits that was caused by the myxomatosis outbreaks of the 1960s. The loss of rabbits also played a key role in the extinction of the large blue butterfly when the lack of rabbit grazing made the habitat less suitable for the ants on which the Large Blue depended. In Ireland, there is competition between the brown hare and the Irish hare (a race of mountain hare) whereas in Britain they tend to be geographically separated: mountain hares being found only in upland areas and being restricted to Scotland except for a small population in the Peak District.
Rabbits and hares can be distinguished by several features, including the shorter back legs and ears of rabbits in comparison to hares and differences colouration. Brown hares have red-brown fur, with orange-brown flanks and a black-topped tail. Mountain hares have pale grey body colour in summer with a tail that is all white. At this time of year, mountain hares start to change to their white winter coat. However, the coat of leverets (juvenile hares) remains dark grey/brown in their first autumn.
We are concerned about the lack of information on population trends for rabbits, brown hares and mountain hares. You may well have seen headlines suggesting that there are declines in all of these species, with hunting, disease outbreaks, and habitat change all being implicated. Unfortunately there is not much evidence to go on (perhaps the best comes from reports of rabbits from people undertaking bird surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology). You can help by using our Mammal Mapper app whilst you’re out walking/cycling this half-term and to record any mammals that you see. You can download Mammal Mapper here. Autumn is a good time for spotting, with longer nights and vegetation starting to die back.
You may also have heard about deaths of brown hares in Norfolk and Suffolk. We emphasise that the cause of these deaths are unknown, and at present there is no evidence of any runaway epidemic of hare deaths owing to myxomatosis. Populations are high at this time of year, and it is not uncommon for animals, particularly youngsters, to be found dead from a range of causes including parasite infections. However, to help find out more about what is going on, the Norfolk and Suffolk Wildlife Trusts, together with the University of East Anglia are asking for reports of any hares found dead. More info can be found here.
For more information on mountain hares click here.