The European Hare is also known as the Brown Hare or Eastern Jackrabbit in the USA and is a native species to Europe and Western Asia. It is perfectly adapted to open temperate country and although superficially similar to a rabbit it has significant differences in physiology and behaviour.
Physically it is larger with longer ears and legs than a rabbit; a full grown adult can be up to 80cm long including tail and weigh up to 6.5 kg. Unlike rabbits when threatened hares use speed to escape rather than fleeing to the safety of underground burrows. The longer ears allow better detection of predators and the longer legs give hares impressive speed over open ground with a speed of 45mph (72km/h) having been recorded for short bursts. Their body is adapted to be resistant to high speed impacts including a jointed or kinetic skull which is unique among mammals. This means a suture between parts of the brain case remains open in an adult, which allows some movement between parts of the braincase which helps absorb impact when the hare strikes the ground or from an impact at high speed
As with most small herbivores hares are fairly nervous and shy creatures but during spring their behaviour changes (in the UK the expression is ‘Mad as a March hare”). During this period they can be seen in the daytime chasing each other around open ground and ‘boxing’ each other with their front paws while they stand on their hind legs. This was mistakenly thought to be males competing for a mate but more recent studies show that it is females hitting males to discourage mating or to test them to see if they are suitable mate.
Behaviourally they are different from rabbits, unlike rabbits they tend to live alone or in breeding pairs. Hares do not burrow but create a shallow depression in the ground or a nest of flat grasses this is known as a form or in England as a scrape. The young hares are adapted to being born in the open and are born fully furred and with open eyes. Hares cannot be domesticated the few species sold as domesticated hares are actually rabbits bred to resemble hares.
Sometimes Hares will use old nests of ground nesting field birds which is thought to be the root of the idea that Hares lay eggs (believed by the Saxons), hence the association with the Easter Bunny bringing eggs and the Pagan spring goddess Eostre. In some parts of Europe it is actually an Easter Hare rather than Easter Bunny. In African folk tales (and cultures which originated from African slaves) the hare is seen as a trickster, in Irish legends the hare is linked to the fairy or sidh with bad luck befalling those who harm hares. In many cultures the hare is associated with the moon as the pattern of shadows on the moon can be seen to resemble a hare.
The European Hare is not native to Britain but has been breeding in the UK since ancient times displacing the native Mountain Hare in many areas. More recently hares have been introduced across the globe from the Americas (where the species spread from escapees from a farm in Ontario, Canada in 1912), to Australia, New Zealand and isolated islands like the Falklands and even Barbados.
Hares are strict herbivores eating grasses during the summer months but as winter approaches they switch to eating twigs, bark and the buds of trees making them harmful to orchards. Apart from humans predators include the golden eagle, foxes and where present wolves. In the US coyotes and bobcats also hunt hares. Hunting hares for sport is called hare coursing. They are a poor survival food due to the low fat content and calorific value. They can be skinned and cooked the same way as rabbits, normally roasted or breaded and fried. A traditional English dish now rarely seen was potted hare, where the meat was cooked and then covered in a thick layer of butter as a preservative. The dish would then be fit to eat for several months and served with bread as a cold starter. Observant Jews will not eat hare as it is deemed not Kosher