Common name: European hare
Scientific name: Lepus europaeus
Other common name: hare
European hares are an established pest animal in the state of Victoria.
Read more about the classification of invasive animals in Victoria.
History of spread
The European hare was first introduced to Australia in the late 1830s in Tasmania, although this attempt to establish wild populations failed.
The first successful colony of hares to establish in Australia was on the shores of Victoria's Westernport Bay in 1862. The following year another hare colony was established on Phillip Island by the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria for the use in the sport 'coursing'. Hares released on the mainland thrived with limited hunting pressure.
By 1870, European hares were relatively abundant and widespread throughout much of south-east Australia. Spreading at an approximate rate of 60 kilometres per year, hares crossed the Murray River in 1875, where they made their way along the western slopes and tablelands of New South Wales. By 1900, hares had reached the Queensland border and become a major agricultural problem in northern and western Victoria.
Distribution in Victoria
Hares are widespread in open grassland, woodland, agricultural and urban areas throughout Victoria.
The European hare belongs to the family Leporidae, along with the rabbit.
The male European hare is called a 'Jack' while the female is called a 'Jill'. Offspring under one year are referred to as 'leverets'.
Male hares are generally smaller than females. Leverets are born with hair and their eyes open and are able to move about soon after birth. Similar to rabbits, juvenile hares have a white star on their forehead.
Hares have large ears, often with black tips which play an important part in controlling their body temperature. In hot weather, the ears are held away from their bodies and appear flushed, while in cooler weather, the exposed areas of the ears are held close to the body to prevent heat loss.
A hare's hind limbs are longer than its front limbs. The fur has a flecked appearance, made up of tan, black and white hairs, ruddy brown or grey above and white below. This allows the hare to blend in well with dry grass.
Like rabbits, hares have 28 teeth with the lower tooth rows being closer together than the upper rows. In the upper jaw, the hare has two pairs of continuously growing, enamel covered upper incisors; the front long pair has a cutting edge, while the peg teeth located behind these do not have a cutting edge. At birth, the hare has three sets of incisors, but the outer pair is lost soon after birth.
Hares have unique upper teeth consisting of a pair of gnawing 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 cause a very distinctive, 45-degree angle cut on browsed vegetation.
Hares are most active in the late afternoon and at night.
Hares are solitary animals but do tend to come together while grazing as a response to predation. Hares grazing in groups tend to receive fewer interruptions than those who graze alone. Hares will travel up to 3 to 4km to feed on a wide range of food types.
Hares can accelerate to high speed when disturbed or threatened. When approached, the hare will remain still until the predator is within 1 to 2 metres. The hare will then break cover and sprint away at high speed. A hare will confuse predators by doubling back on its tracks to leave a disarrayed trail. This will often involve a large leap sideways to break its scent trail.
A hare's heart is big for the size of its body. Although it can drive the animal's legs at a pace that many other animals can't match, its heart will not support the animal when stressed. Hares are easily stressed, panicked or traumatised.
Unlike rabbits, hares do not shelter in warrens or burrows. Instead they rest in a shallow depression in the ground called a 'form'. A hare's form is usually found among long grass, rocks, logs or branches, oval in shape and around 400mm × 200mm in dimension. Leverets are born above ground into a type of nest created within a form.
Hares are primarily herbivorous and feed mainly after sunset. The diet of hares consists of leaves, stems and rhizomes of dry and green grasses. They also eat:
- herbaceous plants
- wood and bark
- some fungi.
Like rabbits, caecotrophy (the reingestion of faecal material from the caecum) is a behaviour that is used by European hares in order to gain the maximum amount of nutrients from their food as possible.
The preferred habitat of hares is open country with the presence of tussock or rocks to hide amongst. They are widespread in grasslands, woodlands, agriculture and urban areas of Victoria.
Currently, hares are limited to south-eastern Australia's temperate climate which replicates the cool European climate from where they originate.
Hares are vulnerable to predators both as leverets and as adults. Foxes will hunt adult hares and leverets, while wedge-tailed eagles are a major threat to adult hares and feral cats pose a major threat to leverets.
Diseases and parasites
European hares are prone to several different types of parasites and disease which cause a higher proportion of deaths than predators. European hares may also be affected by RHDV2, a form of the calicivirus. Importantly, RHDV1 K5 has never been shown to affect any species other than rabbits.
Four species of nematodes, six species of coccidian, liver flukes and two species of dog tapeworms are all internal parasites that infect European hares in Australia. Several species of external parasites have also been observed on European hares in Australia including the:
- European rabbit flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi)
- stickfast flea (Echidnophaga myrmecobii)
- lice (Haemodipsus setoni and Haemodipsus lyriocephalus)
- mite (Leporacarus gibbus).
Hares can breed all year but require high protein green vegetation to stimulate breeding. Hares begin to breed at about eight months old and have the ability to mate immediately after giving birth.
Under favourable conditions, hares may produce more than four litters (each of 2 to 5 young) annually. Research has found that the more litters hares have, the smaller the litter size tends to be. Little is known about the breeding habits of European hares in Australia.
The average gestation period for hares is 42 days, but can range from 38 to 46 days. At birth, leverets are fully furred, 13 to 17cm in length and weigh 80 to 180g. Their eyes are open at birth and are precocial, meaning they are able to move around soon after birth. Leverets are born into a form and are hidden within dense vegetation.
The mother will visit to suckle the young once every 24 hours. After around three days, the young will disperse from their birth place and find separate hiding locations. Young from the same litter will return to a central space to suckle.
The home ranges of hares are considerably larger than those of rabbits, with hares travelling up to four kilometres. This is due to the greater mobility of hares compared to rabbits. Rabbits have a limited territory as they rely on their warren systems for shelter and protection; this means that they must eat the food around their warrens.
Rabbits have a similar physical appearance to hares. Hares are larger than rabbits and have longer ears and longer legs. Generally, hares and rabbits can be distinguished from each other by the way they run. Hares run with their tails down, and the tail appears black, while rabbits run with their tail up and their tail appears white.
Impact on ecosystems and waterways
European hares can cause significant damage when gnawing the bark of young trees and shrubs. European hares also chew off the stems of young trees, damaging or killing the plant. Hares can cause severe damage to revegetation sites.
Agricultural and economic impacts
The European hare is an opportunistic feeder and as well as grazing predominately on grasses, it will also consume crops, such as vegetables, lucerne and cereal crops. This can cause significant economic loss to land-owners that have European hares on or adjacent to their land. Hares can travel significant distances, so the potential for one animal to cause widespread damage to plants is relatively high.
European hares can also be a problem in forestry, ornamental or fruit producing plantations as they can gnaw back the bark of young trees and vines.
Although European hares are not considered a major pest to agriculture, there have been times in the past where hare density has been high. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s when land in the Mallee region of Victoria was being cleared for farming, European hare density became very high. This example along with others suggests that hares will look to make use of land recently cleared of tree cover.
Recommended control measures include:
- exclusion fencing
- above-ground harbour removal
- use of repellents
The department recommends integrated pest management using all available control measures implemented in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.
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Figure 1 to 3 courtesy of Phil Stott