Rabbit or hare? Size is really the best indicator
Published 13/08/2016 | 00:00
Rabbit or hare? that is the question. When you see a creature that can only be either a rabbit or hare, a moment of initial confusion may arise as to which is which.
Books will tell you that hares are bigger than rabbits but that information is not of much use when you see one animal on its own. How big is bigger? The information is only useful if the two species are posing side by side for comparison.
And to add to the difficulties, there are not just two species; we have three species of rabbits and hares in Ireland: the Rabbit, the Irish Hare and the Brown Hare.
There are many similarities between all three species and unfortunately there are few absolutely reliable points of difference that can be used as field marks to guarantee identification to species level when a lone animal is spotted out of doors.
For all its shortcomings, size remains the best indicator. Adult hares are always bigger than adult rabbits, up to twice as big. Hares are bulkier in every way; bigger-bodied and bigger-headed. And they have longer ears and longer hind legs.
Rabbits are also gregarious so if you see one it is likely that there are more around. Hares tend to be seen on their own except in the environs of Dublin airport where there is a large population of easily approached individuals.
The Rabbit is native to Spain and North Africa. The species spread from there and while animals managed to colonise as far north as Finland by natural means, it is not known if they made it to Ireland before the last ice age. The animals we have today are understood to be the descendants of stock introduced by the Normans who farmed them for their meat and fur.
Like the Rabbit, the Brown Hare is also an introduction. It was brought into Northern Ireland from England for sport and appears to be confined to that part of the island. The Irish Hare is a native and is so called as, due to its long isolation here, it has evolved into a distinctly separate sub-species of the Mountain Hare.
The Mountain Hare is found at northern latitudes worldwide. It is believed that it colonised Ireland naturally before the ice sheets fully retreated during the last ice age. It is common and widespread, is found in all counties and has a rich folklore associated with it.