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Brown hare sitting in grass

Easter hares

The Easter bunny is actually a hare – but all three species of hare in the UK are under threat

Brown hare by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

The Easter bunny is believed to deliver eggs to children at Easter. But did you know that the Easter bunny could actually be a hare?


While rabbits live in warrens deep under the ground, hares nest above ground and hide from predators in “forms”: shallow indentations in the ground. As it happens, lapwings also scrape out a shallow nest, and often live in the same grassy farmland that hares inhabit. And the birds will sometimes steal hares' forms to nest and lay eggs in.


So it was that, in Anglo-Saxon times, it was widely believed that hares laid eggs. During the Anglo-Saxon month of Ēostur-monath – or April, as we know it – country-folk searched for fresh-laid eggs in the fields. It was common practice in those days to eat all kinds of wild birds' eggs, including those laid by lapwings. The eggs were hard to find in the long grass, and many historians believe that this spring activity was the origin of modern Easter egg hunts for children.

  

Even if they don't really lay eggs, hares are fascinating creatures. The brown hare is the UK's fastest land animal, with the ability to accelerate up to speeds of around 45mph.

Brown hare running across a snowy field

It's easy to tell the difference between a brown hare and a rabbit: hares are larger, with long black-tipped ears, longer limbs and a loping gait. They have dark tails, rather than the white fluff that can often be seen on a running rabbit.


The best time to see a hare is early in the morning, or at dusk, in open grassy fields – they are particularly fond of farmland. They're mostly solitary creatures, but can come together in small groups during late winter and during courtship, when you might spot several males chasing a female.

Brown hare

© Izzy  Bunting

And despite its 'mad March' reputation, you can see 'boxing' hares – usually a female, fighting off unwelcome advances from a male – throughout the breeding season, from February to September.


Unfortunately though, you're a lot less likely to see a hare these days than you were 100 years ago, as population numbers are dwindling.    


Intensification of farming methods – resulting in habitat loss (especially grassland and hedgerows), food shortages, and death from chemicals and machinery – is one major cause of this decline, but the warming climate and unregulated hunting are also reasons why brown hare populations are struggling.


Brown hares are one of three hare species that are found in the UK. All three species – brown, mountain and Irish – are at risk.


Mountain hares can be found on heather moorland, and in areas of blanket bog and acid grassland – and occasionally, during severe weather, may be seen sheltering in upland woods and conifer plantations. In Scotland they are fairly widespread, but in England they can only be found in the Peak District.

Mountain hare

Mountain hare by Chanonry / Shutterstock

Mountain hares are smaller than brown hares, with shorter ears and a more rounded shape. They live more like a rabbit – digging small burrows or moving into disused rabbit warrens.


Their fur is brown or grey during spring and summer, but during autumn it gradually turns white. The white winter coat is the perfect camouflage for snowy hillsides – but less effective during milder winters, when the moorlands stay brown.


This means that, when it doesn't snow, the animals are far more visible to predators such as foxes, stoats and buzzards. With a warming climate, mild winters are now becoming the norm – and this is just one reason why mountain hares are extremely vulnerable.


Climate change can also reduce the availability of suitable habitat, and mountain hares are susceptible to a range of diseases. They're frequently killed by traffic on moorland roads, and many are culled or snared on grouse moors.


In the Peak District, as the population is small and isolated, there is a real risk that a decline in numbers could eventually lead to local extinction.


In Scotland, where there is a much larger population of mountain hares, the species has had protected status since March 2021. It's now illegal to intentionally kill or injure mountain hares at any time in Scotland without a licence. Such licences will only be issued under certain circumstances, such as concerns for public health or protection of crops and timber.


The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is urging the government to introduce similar legislation to protect mountain hares here in the Peak District.


The Hare Preservation Trust is working for the preservation and welfare of mountain hares, Irish hares and brown hares across the UK. For more information visit www.hare-preservation-trust.com.

Little Green Space March 2022

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