Some aspects of the Irish hare’s appearance and ecology make it distinctive. It’s fur rarely turns white in winter, as observed in the Scottish mountain hare (Lepus timidus scoticus). The coat of the Irish hare may vary in colour throughout the year, sometimes developing white patches. On rare occasions all-white individuals have been recorded and this has sometimes earned them a place in local folklore and legend.
Hares, along with rabbits, are leporids (leporidae). The leporid family, along with pikas, make up the order of lagomorphs (Lagomorpha). Larger than rabbits, adult hares have black tips on the ears and long back legs that give them a distinctive ‘walk’ or lope. The hare is Ireland’s fastest land mammal. The tracks of hares can be distinguished from rabbits’ by their larger size (11-12 cm long). Young hares in their first few months may be mistaken for rabbits.
The Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) is found only in Ireland and is arguably our oldest surviving Irish mammal. Its taxonomy is not straightforward, and many references continue to describe it as the mountain or blue hare, which is found in Scotland. Until recently it had been regarded as a distinct sub-species of the mountain hare, but it is now known to have been present in Ireland since before the last ice age and there is emerging evidence that its genetic characteristics merit classification as a species in its own right.
Small local populations of brown, or European, hares (Lepus euroeaus) exist in Northwest Ulster. This species was introduced to Ireland by landowners in the 19th century and may have survived in local populations but in such small numbers as to make them extremely rare. It is also possible that these may also be the result of more recent introductions. Although these species can interbreed, as yet the threat (if any) posed to our native Irish hares is unknown. Brown hares have longer ears and mottled (thrush) coat. Although brown hares are often described as having black on the upper surface of the tail, this is a trait shared by both species and should not be relied on for identification. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Irish hares and brown hares are not easy to tell apart in the field.
Irish hares appear to be relatively solitary animals for most of the year with a limited range. Studies have produced figures of between 10Ha and 40Ha as the Irish hare’s typical range. Although not highly social, Irish hares exist as local populations, some of which have now become extinct. The systematic depletion and disappearance of these local populations constitute a threat to the whole species.
Some researchers have found evidence of transfer of DNA between populations of Irish hares. However much of the DNA material has been provided by coursing clubs, who themselves have been responsible for translocating hares over a period of time.
The phenomena of ‘boxing’ hares and hare ‘circles’ are associated with mating rituals. Mad March hares display mating behaviour by chasing and jumping. Unreceptive does ‘box’ with over-enthusiastic males (bucks or jacks) and a fertile doe may sit in the middle of a circle of eager suitors.
Irish hares breed throughout most of the year, with leverets recorded from January through to November. With a gestation period of 52 days and a lactation of around 6 weeks, this means that females (does or jills) may be in an active breeding phase at any time. 16 leverets born to captive hares in the month of October suggests that year-round breeding is not exceptional. Litter sizes vary, but it is likely to be between 1 and 4, with an average of 2 leverets.A female is thought to have up to four litters in a year, although it may be less. 75% of the leverets are unlikely to survive their first year of life. Hares do not breed in their first year.
While brown hares and mountain hares are found in lowland and highland areas of Great Britain respectively, Irish hares may be found in a number of habitats from mountains to coastal grassland. However, they are most likely to be found in ‘unimproved’ areas of species rich vegetation, and tall plants such as rushes. This provides not only food but also cover and shelter where they can lie up during the day, out of sight of predators. Unlike rabbits, hares do not live in burrows but in a form, a patch of flattened vegetation often with round fibrous droppings (10-15 mm in size). Living permanently above ground leaves them vulnerable to environmental disturbance or change.
Hares are hind-gut fermenters. This term describes the process used by leporids to efficiently extract nutrients from a high-volume, low-energy diet. The high fibre food passes through the stomach into the small intestine (ileum). Food passes to the ileocaecocolonic junction where the ileum is joined to both the caecum and large intestine (colon). From here, freshly eaten food passes directly to the caecum, where it is broken down by bacteria. From the caecum it passes through the colon to emerge as caecotrophs, moist dark droppings that resemble small bunches of grapes. These caecotrophs are eaten immediately (refection) and
the second stage of digestion begins. This time, nutrients that have been unlocked in the caecal part of the first stage are absorbed as they pass through the ileum. However, as the food material now consists only of fibre, it passes directly to the colon from which it is expelled as the hard fibrous droppings, which are left on the ground.
It may be that refection is the reason that some religions regard hares as ‘unclean’ and not to be eaten.
Leverets are born fully furred, with their eyes open and weighing in at around 150 grams. The mother hides them in long grass or vegetation and only returns each night to feed them. During the day they remain absolutely still and rely on cover and camouflage to evade predation. Even when exposed they are not likely to move, which leads people to believe they are injured or orphaned. It is not unusual to find a leveret on its own and it should never be removed from the wild unless it is in imminent danger.
Anyone concerned about the welfare of a leveret should seek advice first. Weaned at around six weeks, the youngster will be left to fend for itself.
There is no evidence to suggest that Irish hares succumb to myxomatosis or viral haemorrhaghic disease, both of which are now endemic in rabbit populations. European brown hare syndrome virus has not been recorded in Ireland in either Irish or brown hares. The presence of liver fluke in hares appears to be a myth as no reliable evidence of this parasite occurring in hares in Ireland or Great Britain can be found. Irish hares, like most wildlife, may be host to a number of parasites. These, along with essential gut bacteria, do not normally cause any adverse symptoms or illness provided they remain at normal levels. However, this balance can be adversely affected by stress.
There is emerging evidence that stress is a major cause of illness in hares. Fear inducing activities such as capture, handling and confinement may trigger high levels of stress hormones, which can upset the hare’s physiology with fatal consequences. This may be apparent at several levels resulting in sudden death, enteritis, excessive parasite load or liver damage. Death may occur up to some weeks after onset and the symptoms, where present, are likely to be mistaken for dietary illness or ‘natural causes’. more on stress in hares (PDF)