The general form and structure of the brown hare resembles that of the rabbit, but obvious differences include the hare's longer, larger body, much longer hind legs, and longer ears with black tips (2). Generally, brown hares are a brown-russet colour, with a white underside. The tail is black on the upper surface and white underneath. In contrast to rabbits, which have a brown iris, the brown hare has a golden iris and a black pupil (4).
The brown hare is predominantly nocturnal, spending most of the day in small depressions in the grass known as forms. At night the hare ventures out, grazing on the young shoots of grasses and herbs as well as agricultural crops. Hares escape predation by outrunning their enemies; with their powerful hind legs they can reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour (2).
Courtship involves boxing; this well-known 'mad March hare' behaviour actually involves unreceptive females fending off amorous males. Breeding usually occurs between February and September, females typically give birth to around three litters each year of two to four young (leverets). Leverets are born with their eyes open, and are left alone in the day in forms to avoid attracting predators. The mother returns at sunset and the leverets gather around her to suckle (2).
The brown hare is widespread throughout central and western Europe, including most of the UK, although it is absent from the northwest and western highlands in Scotland, where the species is replaced by the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) (5). It is likely that the Romans introduced the brown hare to Britain, as there are no records of this species before Roman times (5).
Numbers of the once abundant brown hare underwent a decline in the 1960s and 70s. The UK population now appears to be remaining fairly stable (3); current estimates put the winter population at between 600,000 to 800,000 individuals (3).The decline was due to a combination of factors including the widespread intensification of agricultural practices, such as the conversion of grassland to arable crops, and changes in cropping regimes, which may remove important food sources at vital times of the year (2). Shooting, poaching and coursing are likely to have contributed to the decline, as has the increase in the numbers of the hare's major predator, the fox (Vulpes vulpes) (2).
The brown hare is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP), the species action plan aims to maintain and expand existing populations, doubling spring numbers in Britain by 2010 (5). Aspects of hare ecology are currently being studied; this aims to guide conservation work (5). The species has minimal legal protection as it is classed as a game species. It is still hunted throughout its breeding season and is the only UK game species not to have a closed season, when hunting is prohibited (3).
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