Hares and rabbits are not the same

DIFFERENCES: Young hares are born furred with their eyes wide open, ready to run. Picture: Mary Hartney.

DIFFERENCES: Young hares are born furred with their eyes wide open, ready to run. Picture: Mary Hartney.

In recent weeks, there has been a young hare feeding on grasses just outside our kitchen window. A very young hare is known as a leveret; this fellow or young lady looks to be almost an adult.

Her golden eyes are large and oval, positioned so she can see danger from almost all directions – like an antelope. The ears are massive, moving independently, this way and that, picking up the faintest sounds.

We have always had hares here on our bush block, and in the forest. I have seen them foraging like our young hare, or running along the dirt road early in the morning. Once we found a very young leveret, huddled in the rain with a horrific eye injury filled with maggots. We took it to the wildlife shelter. It looked like a bird of prey had attempted to carry it away by the head, but then dropped it. The little sweetie was mercifully euthanised.

There is only one kind of hare in Australia: the brown hare, Lepus europeaus. Their natural range is Europe and Russia, and even Siberia. The Acclimitisation Society of Victoria made multiple attempts to establish populations of brown hares in Victoria, distributing hares to landed gentry in 1867.

By 1900, hares were numerous in Victoria and New South Wales, and declared agricultural pests.

So, what are the differences between a hare and a rabbit? The hare is tall and rangy, with very long ears and long muscular hind legs that give the hare a curious lolloping gait. Rabbits have a more compact form, with shorter ears and shorter legs. The average adult weight of a hare is 3.3-3.7kg, and a rabbit 1.2-2kg. The hare is a big, muscular marathon runner, and rabbit a fluffy sprinter.

Rabbits are colonial and live in burrows, often with multiple entrances – to escape predators; the rabbit must sprint to its burrow. The hare, on the other hand, has no burrow. It uses a scrape or shallow depression on the ground known as a form to rest in when not feeding or engaging in social activity. And if a predator flushes a hare from its form, its speed and endurance is what will save it from its main predator, the red fox.

Young rabbits, known as kits, are born furless with their eyes closed.

Young hares, or leverets, are born furred with eyes wide open.

Rabbits feed on grasses and herbs, whereas a hare’s diet is much broader, including leaves, bark, fruit, and fungi. Hares can live in a wider variety of habitats than rabbits, and cause ecologists no end of frustration for their habit of eating endangered orchids.

There are a several spears of hyacinth orchid coming up on the block ready for flowering in January. The top has already been nipped off one – our local hares perhaps? Browsing by hares and rabbits leaves a distinctive 45-degree angle on the stems. This is due to the shape of their teeth, which is a pair of ever-growing gnawing teeth, with peg teeth behind these.

To extract the most nutrients possible form their diet, lagomorphs (hares, rabbits and pikas) produce special soft faeces at night known as cecotropes. These droppings are eaten directly from the anus and unlike the hard pellets produced during the day.

Hares can breed at eight months of age – so our young hare could almost be ready to start a family. When a female is almost, but not quite, ready to breed, a male hare will follow her closely for days. Little is known about the breeding season of hares in Australia. But in Europe, many long-term studies have revealed the secret lives of hares. They breed at a slower rate than rabbits, with litters of just 1-4 leverets.

The hare features heavily in mythic stories in their native range, including ancient Egypt. In the Middle English poem The Names of the Hare, the old names are a delight to read: old big-bum, hare-ling, frisky one, fast traveler, way-beater, nibbler, furze cat, stag of the stubble, cat of the wood, friendless one, fellow in the dew, lurker, skulker and, finally, the stag with the leathery horns.

Tanya Loos