Brown hare Lepus europaeus

About this pest

KEY CLUES

Distinctive features: Looks like a rabbit but is larger, with longer black-tipped ears, larger and more powerful hind legs and a tail that is black above and white below. Longer leap than rabbits. Often zigzags wildly when chased.

Size: Body length 550-680 mm. Tail 75-140 mm long. Average weight is 3-4 kg but can weigh up to 5 kg. Females are slightly larger than males.

Droppings: Separate pellets that can be in clusters. Typically flattened spheres, may be slightly oval and slightly pointed on one side.

Footprints: Hind feet much longer than front feet but often only hind toes and forefeet show in prints. At slow speeds prints are asymmetrical, unlike those of rabbits where hind feet are side by side.

Kill signs: Not applicable (herbivore).

Vegetation damage: Browses on leaves and stems of grasses, tussocks, seedlings and other vegetation up to 1 m height, including bark and branches of woody vegetation.  Leaves can be stripped off completely and stems nipped off at a 45 degree angle.

Eye shine: Red.

Distribution: Found from sea level to 2,000 m elevation in the North Island and South Island except for most of Fiordland, parts of South Westland and an area north of Auckland city from about Mangawhai Road to Hokianga Harbour.

Why are brown hares pests?

Ecological impacts

Hares' main ecological impact is damage to native vegetation and pasture. They can compete with livestock for food but this is hard to quantify, especially where other herbivores are present, such as rabbits, possums, deer and goats.

Hares can prevent regeneration of native plants in favoured hare habitats in the sub-alpine and alpine zones, and can damage sensitive native vegetation around alpine ponds and wetlands. Hares may also eat the some plant species in restoration areas, especially during the first four to five months following planting. Hares can also show a preference for some plant species which, if nationally threatened species, increases the risk of plant population decline or even extinction.

In some instances hares may help to maintain biodiversity of indigenous plants and associated invertebrate species by suppressing introduced weeds and exotic grasses.

Other impacts

Even at low densities hares can cause severe damage to newly planted shelter belts, young trees in plantation forests, market gardens, vegetables, and plants in nurseries.  

Read more about brown hare


Droppings

Separate

Hare droppings are usually found as a single pellet or small groups of faecal pellets. Individual pellets are shaped like flattened spheres, 15 mm × 10 mm in size with a slight tail on one side, or can be somewhat pear-shaped. Fresh droppings are a dull black colour and flecked with lighter bits of undigested vegetation. Older droppings fade to a dried grass colour. Hare droppings are more scattered than rabbit droppings but groupings of hare droppings can occur around prominent structures within their range.

Hare droppings usually fall apart in 1 to 3 months but in dry alpine areas they may retain their shape for 3 or more years. This ‘accumulation’ of faecal pellets can give the impression that hares are more common than they actually are.

Can be confused with:

Compare hare and chamois droppings Hare droppings are most likely to be confused with those of rabbits but are generally larger, more fibrous, more friable (less compacted and easily crumbled), more spherical (rounder) and lighter in colour than rabbit droppings. Groupings of rabbit buck heaps may occur in more open areas whereas groups of hare droppings usually occur around prominent structures. Deer, goat, and chamois droppings are of a similar size to hare droppings but are shiny black when fresh compared to the hare’s dull black droppings. Click on the image at right to compare brown hare and chamois droppings.

Ungulate pellets are also more elongated and pointed at one end compared with those of hares, and usually contain less fibrous plant material.

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Footprints and Tracks

Paws and feet

The brown hare’s hind feet are much longer and slightly wider than the forefeet. The hind feet can measure up to 140-160 mm long in adults. In some gaits, only the toes and digital pads of the hind feet register on the ground and leave a print. Hares typically move at speed in bounds, which means the smaller forepaws touch the ground first and then the larger hind feet swing forward to land in front of the forepaws before the animal pushes off with its powerful hind legs. A hare’s track therefore shows the hind feet in front of its forefeet. Tracks made at slow speed show asymmetrically placed hind footprints. On soft, surfaces such as snow, the four toes of the hind foot are spread, leaving prints that look rather like dog foot prints (though dog prints are symmetrical). The small forepaws leave pear-shaped footprints about 100-200 mm apart, in which four closely spaced toes usually show but not the fifth smaller toe. Hares have a loping gait and always have their tails down; rabbits hop and have their tail up.

Can be confused with:

Distinguishing between hare and rabbit footprints can be difficult but adult hare footprints are larger than those of an adult rabbit. Wallaby foot prints can look similar to hare footprints if the hare is using its entire foot (rather than just its toes), but wallabies have three toes (one of which is not obvious for dama wallaby) that are larger and more spread out than hares. Moreover, the drag mark of a wallaby’s tail is often an obvious distinguishing characteristic and hare and wallaby distributions only overlap in one area of the North Island (see dama wallaby) and one in the South Island (see Bennett’s wallaby). For reliable identification look for other clues such as droppings or burrows (rabbits dig burrows but hares and wallabies do not).

Trails and Runs

Like many other species, hares tend to use the same paths or ‘runs’ frequently and in deep grass these may look like 100-200 mm-wide depressions. These runs often follow ridges or routes up and down slopes. In alpine and sub-alpine areas, favourite runs can become snow tunnels in winter.

Can be confused with:

Hare runs could be confused with those made by rabbits and possums. Pigs, goats, sheep, deer, chamois, tahr and wallabies also create game trails but these trails will probably be wider and with vegetation browsed or broken at greater heights to accommodate these larger animals. To confirm the species using the run look for other evidence, such as footprints, droppings or fur.

Dens and nests

Unlike rabbits, hares do not dig burrows. Instead, they rest above ground in a ‘form’. Forms may be temporary or well-used sites but hares often rest in any suitable place and often move from one form to another. A form is created by scraping away the vegetation and the hare will lie down on the bare earth. This shallow depression (approximately 200 × 400 mm) is usually a bit deeper and wider at the back than the front. Forms are often made in the shelter of a grass tussock or a rock to gain some protection from the wind. If the form is unsheltered, the hare will face downhill or with their back towards the wind. Forms used to give birth to young may be lined with fur that the mother has plucked from her own coat.

Can be confused with:

Wallabies and deer can also create temporary resting sites in grassland. Theirs are likely to be larger than those created by a hare although the resting places of very young deer may be of a similar size.

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Vegetation Damage

Understorey (less than 3m)

Hares can stand on their hind legs and browse plants up to about 1 m high and can reach higher if the terrain or site conditions (such as snowdrifts) allows. At times, their browsing can create very short and dense pasture or grassland swards. Observations have shown that hares can affect nearly all the plants in areas of new tree, shrub and crop planting, even at low hare densities. Hares strip leaves off plants or bite off stems at a 450 angle. In plantings, hares tend to prefer plants with wider foliage such as Coprosma species and will often leave the smaller leaved plants, such as manuka or kanuka, alone.  Studies of hare diet in alpine areas have shown that hares eat a range of plant species, the proportions of which in the diet reflect the abundance of the plant species in the habitat. The winter diet in alpine areas of mainly tussocks (Chionochloa species) and mountain daisies (Celmisia species) changes to more grass-like species such as Poa colensoi in summer, probably because Poa colensoi is more available after the snow has melted.

Hares are known to nip off low branches and bite bark off citrus and other fruit trees, often leaving branches uneaten around the base of the tree. Hares damage market garden crops by biting off asparagus spears, and eating crops like cabbages, cauliflowers and lettuces, as well as grains like corn, wheat and maize.

Can be confused with:

Hare browse can be difficult to distinguish from rabbit browse, as both species will browse vegetation of less than 1 metre in height. Rabbits are a bit shorter than hares and may only reach as high as 0.8 m when standing on their hind feet, though in areas where food is limited it is not uncommon to find they have clambered up into shrubs and fed on them a metre or two above the ground! The browse of other larger herbivorous (plant eating) animals like deer, goats, chamois, wallabies and sheep can be distinguished from hares and rabbits if it extends higher than 1 metre above the ground. Plants browsed by larger herbivores may look more ragged and twigs will lack the 450 angled cut characteristic of hares and rabbits. Look for other distinguishing sign as well, such as droppings that hares often leave near plants they have eaten. Signs of digging down to plant roots, is more likely to be caused by rabbits or Bennett’s wallabies.

Bark

Hares can cause severe damage to the bark of young trees up to a height of 1 m – commonly seen in restoration planting areas, plantation forests, parks and orchards. Field sign may also include uneaten chips of wood and bark left scattered round the base of the tree. Hares (and rabbits) have a unique groove in the centre of the upper incisor teeth which can show up in teethmarks and, if visible, help distinguish from marks of other species such as possums.

Can be confused with:

Rabbit browse on bark look very similar but generally reaches only to 0.8m height compared to 1.0 m with hares. Deer and goats also chew on bark but, compared to hares, the teethmarks are wider, will usually extend further up the stem and damage extends less often down to ground level. Deer and goat damage often looks like bark ‘stripping’ rather than gnawing bite marks. Bark damage inflicted by deer rubbing their antlers are unlikely to be in the hare height range and do not leave teethmarks.

plant leaves

Hares can cause severe damage when browsing leaves and stems of young seedlings and shrubs. Damage is likely to be within 1.0 m of the ground. Leaves, especially if young and tender, can be stripped off completely and stems nipped off on an angle – usually at a 450, similar to a rabbit. Hares will often come back and browse the same plants again, which can result in fatal damage.

Hares (and rabbits) have an unusual arrangement of upper teeth consisting of a pair of gnawing ‘aradicular hypsodont’ teeth (which grow continuously) with a pair of peg teeth hidden behind. This double pair of upper teeth is found only in rabbits and hares and they cause a very distinctive 450 angle cut on browsed vegetation.

Can be confused with:

Hare browse can be difficult to distinguish from rabbit browse. Other larger herbivorous (plant eating) animals like deer, goats, chamois, wallaby and sheep tend to leave more ragged plant damage without the distinctive 450 bite of the stem. Slugs and snails also eat the tender part of leaves, which can often be detected by their distinctive slime trail. Caterpillars can also completely strip a plant, but any remaining leaves will have holes rather than chew marks and their droppings may be noticeable.

Fruits and Flowers

Hares on the river flat of the Avoca River in Canterbury are known to eat the seeds of sweet briar (Rosa rubigonosa). It is not known what other fruits or flowers hares eat.

Can be confused with:

Unknown.

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Kill Sign

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Other Clues

Sound

A hare may squeal when hurt, scared or captured. The squeal can sound eerily like a human. Females make guttural calls to attract their young. A hare will thump its front feet when challenging another hare and thump its hind feet to warn others of a predator.

Can be confused with:

Rabbits make a similar range of noises. Chamois, deer, wallabies, and sheep may also stamp or thump their feet.

Body covering

You may find hare fur in a ‘form’ or caught on twigs. TheEuropean hare has a flecked fur made up of mainly tan, black and white hairs but also including ruddy brown or grey on the shoulders and back and white on the underside.  The fur is soft to the touch.

In colder areas hares may grow a winter coat that is denser and thicker than the summer coat but the coloration is similar. The white undercoat is usually from 8 to 14 mm thick. The coarser guard hairs are up to 35 mm long and coloured dark-brown or black but with red or yellowish-brown tips.

Can be confused with:

Rabbits have similar coloured, soft fur but they often have a denser undercoat (more hairs per follicle) and longer guard hairs. Possum fur is usually darker in colour with guard hairs that are 20 to 40 mm long and brown in colour with black tips. Hair from deer species and goat can be similar in colour but is usually much coarser, longer and stiffer than hare fur.

Eye shine

Hare eyes shine red if spotlit at night.

Can be confused with:

Rabbits, possums and wallaby species also have reddish eye-shine.

Distribution

Hares seem to favour some habitats and not others but they occur in suitable habitat from sea level to 2,000 m altitude in the North Island and South Island except for most of Fiordland, parts of South Westland, and north of Auckland city between about Mangawhai Road and the Hokianga Harbour. They are found north of the Hokianga Harbour up to Cape Reinga. They do not occur on offshore islands. Their average density in New Zealand is estimated to be 0.1 hares per hectare. Highest densities are in the sub-alpine grasslands along the eastern side of the Southern Alps denisities can be as many as two or three hares per hectare (comparable to the maximum 3.4-per-hectare hare density recorded in Europe.

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More about brown hares

Origin

Native to Europe and parts of Asia. The first hares in New Zealand apparently jumped ship from the Eagle in 1851 and swam ashore at Lyttelton. However, that population died out. Most of the hares in New Zealand probably came from England via Phillip Island in Victoria, Australia through successive importations between 1867 and 1871. Hares were protected until about 1870, although legislation in 1866 allowed landowners or tenants to control them. The spread of hares was very rapid and they reached peak abundances in about 1903, after which their numbers declined for unknown reason/s.

Description

The brown hare is a fast-running terrestrial mammal, with eyes set high on the sides of its head, long ears and a flexible neck. The fur colour is yellow-brown on the back, reddish on the shoulders, legs, neck and throat, white on the underside, and black on the tail and ear tips. The eyes have a golden iris in contrast to the brown iris in rabbits’ eyes.

Size and weight

The total head and body length ranges between 480-750 mm, plus a tail length of 85-120 mm. Their weight range is 3-4 kg,  although in New Zealand the largest are about 5 kg. Females are slightly larger than males but this is probably not noticeable in the field.

Behaviour

Brown hares are primarily nocturnal and spend approximately a third of their total time foraging. Usually they will travel one to two kilometres to find food but have been recorded travelling 15 km in one night while feeding in snow above the bushline. They will congregate on favoured crops such as lucerne. During the daytime, hares hide in shallow depressions in the ground (known as a ‘form’) where they are partially hidden. They will approach the form from a different route each time to confuse predators. Brown hares can reach speeds of up to 70 km/h and rely on their speed to outrun predators when in the open. They will also try to confuse predators by circling, leaping sideways, chasing another hare out of hiding to give the predator an alternative target, and using a well-practiced ‘race track’ that the hare can run along at full speed.

Brown hares are usually solitary but can be seen in small family groups or feeding with other hares. They do not appear to be territorial and live in home ranges that overlap those of other individuals. In New Zealand, breeding begins in June with peak breeding activity during September. Often several males will compete with one another for access to a female in season and dominant males will chase or box rivals if required. This ‘mad’ boisterous type of behaviour, which occurs in March in the northern hemisphere, gave rise to the phrase, ‘mad as a March hare’. Female hares give birth to an average of two young (known as leverets) per litter and in New Zealand can have up to four or five litters per year. The young are nursed only once or twice per night for a few minutes and begin to eat some vegetation after about a week. Brown hares have excellent senses of smell, hearing and sight, but cannot easily discriminate stationary objects.

Diet

Brown hares are herbivorous and feed mainly on grasses and herbs in summer and shrubs and tussocks in winter. In some areas, this diet may be supplemented with twigs, buds, bark, crops and fruit. They sometimes eat their own fresh faecal pellets to recover undigested proteins and vitamins. They show preferences for some plant species over others, including nationally threatened species. For instance, the Department of Conservation built cages around plants in one population of the ‘threatened-nationally endangered’ Mt Taranaki māhoe (Melicytus drucei) to protect them from hares. When built-up snow enabled them to do so, the hares climbed on top of the cages so they could reach the plants. Unfenced plants were killed by hare damage.

Habitat

Brown hares prefer grassland or open country, spending only about 2% of their time in forest interiors even if forest is readily available within their home range. Favoured areas include coastal sand dunes, pasture, rush-covered areas and clearings in scrub or forest. Hares can also be found in plantations and orchards. They live in alpine tussock grasslands even in winter; seeking cover by day at the timberline and feeding at night on vegetation exposed from snow right to the upper limit of alpine vegetation.

Other

Male hares are referred to as ‘bucks’ or ‘jacks’; female hares as ‘does’ or ‘jills’; and young hares are leverets. Stoats, ferrets, and cats prey on them, while weasels can kill leverets. In alpine areas, harrier hawks can also be a significant hare predator. As with most animals, the young, sick and old are most vulnerable to predators. 

How to get rid of it

Night-time spotlight shooting can reduce hare density but animals can become light-shy. Netting or shooting from helicopters is also possible but rarely happens in New Zealand.

FIND MORE INFORMATION IN:

National Pest Control Agencies (2015). Pest hares - monitoring and control. National Pest Control Agencies, Wellington, New Zealand

Norbury G., and Flux J.E.C. (2005). European hare. In The handbook of New Zealand mammals. King, C.M., (Ed.) South Melbourne, Australia, Oxford University Press

Wong, V, Hickling G. 1999. Assessment and management of hare impact on high-altitude vegetation. Science for Conservation 116. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.