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March Star Species: The Hare

Do you know the difference between a hare and a rabbit? Do you know how hares deal with predators (and, no, they don’t challenge them to a boxing match)? All is revealed by Charlie, our Forest Ranger at Thorpe Forest.

“I love hares. Having grown up in the Suffolk and Norfolk countryside I have always been aware of these beautiful mammals. What is immediately striking when you spot them is their size, which is similar to that of a small dog. And when they get moving – off at the speed of light!

What is the difference between a rabbit and a hare?

One of the classic questions I get asked - a lot - is what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? A hare’s distinctive large ears with characteristic black tips, and their long hind legs, make them easy to recognise and removes the possibility of confusing them with rabbits. Hares live entirely above ground while rabbits burrow. So if the animal you are watching disappears below ground, you can be sure it’s not a hare.

Detecting danger
run or hide?

European hare

Those massive ears give hares superb hearing and with large, slightly prominent eyes positioned on the side of the head, they have an almost 360 degree field of vision.

To escape their predators hares utilise two methods of survival - plain speed or doing absolutely nothing! By taking refuge in a furrowed trough of a ploughed field and resembling a clod of turned earth, or lying low in a shallow, self-made depression, they are virtually undetectable from ground level. It is possible to gaze across a field and see nothing, yet that field may be refuge to a dozen or more hares.

Many a time when I have been out beating with the family dogs, Sam the Sprocker and Meg the Cocker, I have almost trodden on a hare, which at the last minute takes off, giving me a heart in the mouth experience!

Protecting our hares

Hare running

Sadly numbers of the once common brown hare have shown a steady decline in England since the 1960s. This may be linked to changes in the way crops are grown and grasslands are managed. Shooting and hare coursing may also have contributed to losses. Legislation in 2005 made hare coursing illegal, however it is still legal to shoot hares and it is the only UK game species not to have a closed season when shooting is banned.

As part of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Citizen Science Survey I spent time recording hare sightings and uploading them onto the Norfolk Wildlife website. By undertaking surveys like this, they are able to identify areas which are especially important for wildlife in Norfolk and help map populations of brown hare. You can be involved in similar surveys by getting in touch with your local Wildlife Trust

Why do Hares box?

Boxing occurs during March and April when two hares stand on their back legs and 'box' each other with their front feet. The behaviour can be quite intense and gives rise to the name the ‘Mad March Hare’. Boxing is part of courtship behaviour and is usually the female warning off unwanted males rather than fighting between two males. 

Hare raising facts

  • Brown hares may have been introduced into Britain by the Romans
  • The original native hare in Britain was the Mountain Hare
  • The hare is our fastest land animal and can run at speeds up to 35mph
  • A male hare is called Jack and a female called Jill
  • Young hares are known as leverets and the collective name for a group of hares is a drove.
  • Hares are herbivores, eating grasses, cereal shoots, root vegetables - and their own droppings!
  • Hares have an unusually long breeding season and typically produce three litters a year between February and October.
  • Hares have long been associated with witches who were reputed to have the power to change into hares to flee their enemies!

Will you see a brown hare at Thorpe Forest this year?

Brown hares are widespread throughout the UK and perfectly at home amongst the Norfolk arable farmland. Indeed, Norfolk holds nationally important populations of brown hares and, whilst numbers have declined, it remains a stronghold for this species.

Hares are present throughout the year, but difficult to spot on farmland once the crops have grown tall. The best time to look for hares is dawn or dusk; they feed mainly at night and lie up during the day. March is most certainly the best time to observe their frolicking and interaction with each other.”

Head for Thorpe Forest this month and, who knows, you may see a boxing match!