- Written by Nadia O’Carroll
The species that we see in Australia is the European Brown Hare (Lepus capensis). It can grow to a body length of 650mm and a weight up to 6.5kgs, however most are smaller than this. Adults are fawn to tawny; underparts and tail are white.
A hare is equipped for speed, it has long legs, a powerful leaping gait and a big heart which enable it to sprint and accelerate swiftly, speeds of 72 kms per hour have been recorded. Hares are herbivores and eat grass, herbs, bark and shoots. They do not have strong social bonds and are basically solitary, but may congregate in small groups especially during the breeding season. At this time they engage in spectacular leaping, chasing and boxing displays – activities which gave rise to the saying “as mad as a March hare”. After a gestation of 42 days, between 2 and 4 young called leverets are born.
Leverets are fully furred; they stay hidden in a shallow nest called a form for 30 days, and are fed by their mother once per day until they are weaned at 30 days old. Hares can live for 14 years but they have many predators, in Australia these include raptors, snakes, feral cats, foxes, dingoes and wild dogs.
Although hares resemble rabbits, there are many differences - hares do not burrow, they are not gregarious, they outrun predators rather than hide in burrows, they are not effected by myxomatosis, their young are born fully furred while rabbits are born blind and hairless, and most importantly hares do not have the same high reproductive rate as rabbits and consequently are only considered a minor pest.
The original range of the European Brown Hare was probably Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia; it is thought that the Romans introduced them to Britain. Hares have a curious relationship with humans, while they thrive in cultivated landscapes and seem tolerant of human presence they have not been domesticated because they have an extremely strong flight instinct. If caged they become distressed, can suffer cardiac arrest or fatally injure themselves by repeated attempts to escape.
The most significant importation of hares into Australia was by the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria in 1860s, by 1900 the hare population had expanded north the Queensland border. Acclimatisation societies were established in many new colonies, their philosophy being that the landscape of the new colonies should be populated and vegetated by selected wildlife and plants. A species could be introduced because it was ornamental, had commercial potential, reminded settlers of home or was a game animal (eg foxes and hares). Unfortunately the Acclimatisation Societies had very little biological knowledge and a simplistic approach, consequently they often left a legacy of environmental and agricultural disasters such as rabbits, foxes, carp and numerous weed species.