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Hares and rabbits factsheet

Hares and rabbits factsheet

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Hares and rabbits have an important place in Ireland’s biodiversity. Learn all about these fascinating mammals in a fact sheet by Mike Rendle of the Irish Hare Initiative – http://www.irishhare.org/
Hares and rabbits have an important place in Ireland’s biodiversity. Learn all about these fascinating mammals in a fact sheet by Mike Rendle of the Irish Hare Initiative – http://www.irishhare.org/

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Published by: Irish Council Against Blood Sports on Jul 22, 2009
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An Irish Hare at Glenlark Nature Reserve inCounty Tyrone. (Photo: Mike Rendle)
Hares and rabbits are mammals whichbelong to the family called leporids. Alongwith pikas (a small animal found in Asia)they form the order of Lagomorphs.Lagomorphs are distinctive in that theyhave a second set of incisors.
Rabbits and hares aresimilar in some waysbut different in others.What they both have incommon is that theyare prey animals thatrely on hiding or run-ning to evade preda-tors.Standing upright ontheir strong hind legs,their long ears andpanoramic eyesightalert them to danger.Adult hares are abouttwice the size of rabbitsbut young hares mayeasily be confused withrabbits.All leporids feed onvegetation, such asgrass and other plants,which has a relativelylow food value. Fromthis they must deriveenough energy to keepwarm, move rapidlyand rear their young,which they achieve byfrequent browsing.Their teeth growcontinuously to com-pensate for the con-stant wear and tearfrom nibbling plantsinto very small pieces.To help them get asmany nutrients as pos-sible, leporids havetwo types of droppings.One type consists ofround fibrous balls, likethe droppings we seein a field. The othertype, called cae-cotrophs, look like asmall bunch of shinyblack grapes and con-tain important nutri-ents.These appear afterthe food has first beendigested and we hardlyever see thesebecause the rabbit orhare eats them as theyare produced. Thismay seem distastefulto some of us, but lep-orids must do this toremain nourished andhealthy. Some religionsforbid the eating ofhares for this reason.Hares and rabbitsfeature in the folkloreand mythology of cul-tures throughout theworld and Ireland is noexception.When people firstcolonised Ireland afterthe ice age, theybrought with thempagan gods. One ofthese was the moongoddess Eostre, whowas worshiped in thespring. Some culturescould see the image ofa hare (or rabbit) carry-ing an egg on themoon's surface. Thehare was believed tobe the earthly form ofEostre, who gazed upat the moon that washer home.This lore has notonly given us the nameof our present Easterholiday but also Eastereggs and the Easterbunny (originally theEaster hare!).There are threespecies of Leporid inIreland; the Irish hare(Lepus timidus hiberni-cus), the brown hare(Lepus europeaeus,but sometimes referredto as Lepus capensis)and the rabbit(Oryctolagus cunicu-lus). Hares and rabbitshave an importantplace in the island'sbiodiversity.Read on to learnmore about hares andrabbits in Ireland.
 
An Irish Hare restingin a meadow. (Photo:Mike Brown)
Brown hares wereintroduced to Irelandby landowners in the19th century to supple-ment game species forhunting parties. Theseattempts had limitedsuccess becausemany hares died fol-lowing their journeyfrom Britain.Also called the'thrush' hare, thisspecies survived insmall pockets andalthough its presentstatus is unknown,they are consideredscarce.There is no evi-dence that brownhares interbreed with,or threaten, our nativeIrish hares. The twospecies are hard to tellapart in the field andfew confirmed recentsightings of brownhares exist.The Irish hare is oneof our true native mam-mals and is found onlyin Ireland. It is regard-ed as a distinct sub-species of theMountain or Blue hare(Lepus timidus), whichis found in Britain andEurope.However, unlike itsclose relation, the Irishhare is found in mostareas and is not justconfined to mountainregions.The fur of the moun-tain hare turns white inwinter but this is rarelyobserved in its Irishcousin. However, thecoat of the Irish haremay vary in colourthroughout the year,sometimes developingwhite patches. On rareoccasions, all-whiteindividuals have beenrecorded.Larger than rabbits,Irish hares have blacktips on the ears, whiteon both upper andlower surfaces of thetail and long back legsthat give them a dis-tinctive 'walk'.Although hares maybe found throughoutIreland from mountain-side to coastal grass-land, they are mostlikely to be found in'unimproved' areas ofspecies-rich vegeta-tion.This provides notonly food but alsocover and shelterwhere they can lie upduring the day out ofsight of predators.They do not live inburrows but in a 'nest'of flattened grasscalled a form.The month of Marchis associated withhares, when femalesmay be seen fendingoff or 'boxing' enthusi-astic males.Irish hares maybreed throughout mostof the year, having twoor three litters with anaverage litter size oftwo.Leverets are bornfully furred with eyesopen. The mother hare'hides' them in vegeta-tion and returns onlyonce each night to feedthem. It is normal tosee a leveret on itsown and it shouldnever be removed fromthe wild unless it is inimminent danger.Weaned at sixweeks, the youngsterwill be old enough tobreed the followingyear.The Irish hare popu-lation has undergone adramatic decline overthe last thirty years andnumbers are low.It is widely believedthat changes in landuse and agriculturehave contributed totheir demise. Haresprefer unimprovedland, which hasbecome less abundantwith modern farmingpractices.Overgrazing, over-stocking and increasedproduction of silage allhave a detrimentalaffect on hares andtheir habitat. Adults aresensitive to disturbanceand the young may bekilled by grass cutting.Short vegetation andthe removal of rushes,hedgerows and othercover leaves them athigher risk of predation.Some pesticides areknown to be deadly tohares and otherwildlife.Although hares havebeen hunted andcoursed for centuries,nowadays the majorityof people believe thatthese activities arecruel.There is evidencethat coursing cancause high levels ofstress in hares leadingto sickness and death.With numbers atdangerously low levels,every hare is preciousand the provision ofeffective legal protec-tion underpins otherconservation meas-ures.
 
Arabbit at night. Rabbits live for about 1.5years in the wild. (Photo: Mike Rendle)
Rabbits were intro-duced to Ireland by theNormans in the 12thcentury and are nowcommon throughoutthe island. They werekept in enclosed war-rens and exploited as afood supply.Its Latin name,cuniculus, meansunderground passageand these adaptableanimals may be foundanywhere they canmake burrows,although they avoidwet areas.The general popula-tion of rabbits remainsrelatively stablealthough numbers fluc-tuate locally as a resultof two virulent dis-eases, myxomatosisand viral haemorrhagicdisease (VHD). Thesewere introduced intowild rabbit populationsto control their num-bers.Domestic rabbitsare also vulnerable toboth of these highlyinfectious diseasesand owners canarrange effective vacci-nation for their pets attheir local veterinarypractice.When numbers arehigh, they are oftenregarded as pests butthey have a veryimportant place in thefood chain and make amajor contribution tothe diet of otherspecies such as buz-zards and stoats.Well known for theirability to reproduce,they can have severallitters each year fromthe age of around threemonths. With an aver-age litter size of six,these high numbersare balanced by a 95%mortality rate in theirfirst year and a lifespan of only 1.5 years(domestic rabbits maylive 10 years or more).Babies are bornnaked and blind in aspecial burrow, or stop,made by the doe.Weaned at four weeks,they leave this burrowto take their place inthe rabbit community.Their ability to breedhas encouraged theiruse as a laboratoryanimal for testing prod-ucts such as cosmet-ics, although animaltesting is becomingincreasingly redundantin favour of morehumane methods.Although they havebeen domesticated forcenturies, rabbits stillretain many qualities oftheir wild ancestorsand it is possible for adoe of any breed togive birth to a babywith the natural agoutifur colour.Contrary to popularbelief, rabbits do notmake good children'spets. As prey animals,most do not like to bepicked up and cuddled.They need plenty ofspace and a suitableenvironment.The traditional rabbithutch is outdated anddoes not allow a rabbitto exhibit naturalbehaviour. Often keptin isolation, thesesocial animals preferthe company of theirown kind. Young rab-bits are very difficult tosex accurately, whichmeans that buying apair of 'females' maylead to an unexpected(and unwanted) popu-lation explosion.Juveniles are docileand submissive, but ataround 3-6 months ofage many becomeaggressive.In the wild, rabbitsbecome naturally com-petitive and aggressiveas they mature -domestic rabbits areno different. Neuteringwill resolve manybehavioural and breed-ing issues.Diet is important toavoid common healthproblems. This meansproviding a constantsupply of high fibrematerial such as hay orgrass (not grass clip-pings from mowing thelawn). Rabbits are vul-nerable animals andrequire a great deal ofcare and attention.They will require asmuch, if not more,commitment and workas any other family pet.With a lifespan incaptivity of more thanten years, rabbitsshould never bebought on impulse -there are plenty of rab-bits in animal sanctuar-ies in need of goodhomes.

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