I live in the countryside, and am always seeing rabbits and hares crossing my path, startled into a panicky streak of fur darting back into the undergrowth. I know their differences in appearance – hares are bigger, have longer black-tipped ears and more powerful hind legs, but there are other differences too.
Where they live for instance – rabbits live underground in burrows, but hares live above ground. Baby rabbits are called kits or kittens, and are born blind, helpless and hairless, and are ready to leave the nest at 3 weeks of age, despite the fact they are tiny. Baby hares are called leverets and are born with fur, can see and are up and running within a few hours.
No wonder there is the expression ‘mad as a March hare’, because during the mating season, the female hare, known as a jill, tests the male, called a jack, by running. If he catches her (and if she fancies him), mating will continue, if she's not in the mood, she will stop and give him a good punch, or even several! And the males will stand up and ‘box’ each other during the mating season too if one thinks the competition is trying to take over his woman!
Their diet is different too, hares will eat grasses, herbs and field crops, plus twigs and the bark of shrubs and fruit trees. Rabbits eat softer grasses, weeds, clover, wildflowers and vegetable plants, and this gave them a very bad reputation in Australia, going right back to the mid 1800s when European rabbits were introduced for hunting in the Australian wild by Thomas Austin, a wealthy settler who lived in Victoria, Australia. He had 13 European wild rabbits sent to him from across the world, which he released onto his estate. From this one location, it took only around 50 years for these rabbits to spread across the entire continent, and there are an estimated 200 million feral rabbits still hopping about. 200 million! They devastated crops, and may have caused the extinction of several small ground-dwelling mammals of Australia's arid lands, and have contributed to the decline in numbers of many native plants and animals, and made a right nuisance of themselves. In an effort to control their numbers, myxomatosis was introduced in the 1950s which helped reduce their numbers, but survivors have since adapted and partially recovered their numbers.
Having said all that, domesticated rabbits actually make great pets, and there are several species you can pick from, and any long-haired breed will probably need daily grooming. They have a lifespan of 5-8 years, but some will live to 12, so take this into account before you take one on. Just be warned – they are eating machines, eating up to 30 times a day, needing small amounts frequently, and their diet should be high fibre, 2-8g a day. Their teeth continually grow throughout their life, so need to be continually worn down by eating, and need unlimited access to grass hay or grass, but avoid grass clippings as this ferments quickly and upset their stomachs. Rabbits need a tablespoon of commercial rabbit nuggets or pellets once or twice daily, together with fresh veggies, such as lettuce, cabbage or broccoli, but carrots or other sweeter veg, such as root veg, should only be fed in small amounts.
They will also need a hutch or somewhere to keep them protected from predators – even your pet dog or cat could be a surprising threat! The hutch should be big enough for two or more sections, and ideally there should be a ‘run’ suitably big enough for your rabbit to move around in for exercise. Your hutch needs to be at least 'three hops long' (approximately 4 times the length of your bunny when stretched out) and twice as wide as your bunny. Anything smaller and your bunny will be too cramped, and if you buy a young one, remember they will grow.
Hares have not been bred for captivity or for pets, and don’t be fooled by the name ‘Belgian Hare’ – this is actually a big fancy rabbit that has been bred to resemble a hare.