A Bird for All Seasons: Hare Today and Gone Tomorrow

(by Robert McDowell, 8 March 2024)

It was probably largely due to the behaviour of the males at this time of year that Lewis Carroll thought the March Hare a worthy candidate for inclusion in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.  Male hares, or bucks, certainly act in a strange manner when mating time comes around. 

Normally solitary, the bucks bound around, rear up on hind legs and “box” one another.  This behaviour is triggered by the secretion of hormones causing the males to come into breeding condition.  These hormonal secretions may be due to external cues, such as the lengthening hours of daylight, or an increase in temperature.  “Boxing” has also been attributed to females, fending off the males, as they have not yet come into oestrus.

A brown hare sitting in a field of grass
Brown Hare (Photo: Robert McDowell)

A variety of species

The largest of the hares in the British Isles is the Brown Hare, which is mostly found in lowland areas.  It is not native to this country, having been introduced.  It can be seen locally in Counties Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone.  It is distinguished from the smaller Irish Hare by its longer ears and lack of pure white tail. 

The Irish Hare is a sub-species of the Blue or Mountain Hare, sometimes called the Arctic Hare.  The Blue Hare of northern Britain has adopted the evolutionary strategy of being able to don a pure white coat after the autumn moult, whereas its Irish counterpart may only occasionally turn partially white.  The adaptation of the Blue Hare ensures better camouflage in snow from aerial predators such as Eagles and Buzzards.  Only the tips of the ears remain black. 

A further variety occurs on Rathlin Island.  This is not a true sub-species but a curious race of the Irish Hare.  It is golden in colour and has blue eyes!  In all of my visits to Rathlin I have yet to see one, but I hope one day to be able to rectify this.

Hares form a major part of the diet of Golden Eagles.  Amazingly, when these magnificent birds last nested at Fair Head in the 1950s, instead of preying on the local population of Irish Hares, the adults made the daily flight to Scotland and fed the young exclusively on Blue Hares!

The slightly larger Irish Hare has a more rufous appearance in summer and autumn, seeming almost foxy-red.  All three species have three annual moults, a characteristic which may be again associated with day-length. 

A study of hares in County Antrim showed that for most of the year their food consisted of 28% heather, 15% bog cotton, 10% other sedges and 44% upland grasses.  In winter however, their diet consisted of 90% heather.  Like rabbits, hares indulge in refection, i.e., passing food through the body twice.  Soft, moist faeces produced during the day are immediately consumed, eventually passed as round, dry pellets.

When Nutt’s Corner airport relocated to Aldergrove some years ago, the hares also migrated!  Curiously, the hare depicted on the old Irish three-pence piece (remember it?) was not an Irish Hare, but a Brown Hare!

Irish Hares breed from February to October, producing four litters of up to four young.  Leverets are born with their eyes open and can run within one day.  They lie up in “forms” during the day, being visited by the doe for lactation.  Hares are immune from myxomatosis, which has scourged the Rabbit population in the past.