Thumbnail

Hares and rabbits

Scotland has millions of rabbits and two species of hare, but of these three only the mountain hare is native.

Rabbits and hares are herbivorous mammals of the order Lagomorpha. Britain’s only native member of the group is the mountain hare (Lepus timidus). Both the rabbit and the brown hare were introduced.

In Britain, hares are animals of open ground, relying on their good eyesight, camouflage and high speed to avoid predators. They are larger than rabbits and have longer legs, and don’t live as colonies in vast burrow systems. Hares instead create ‘forms’, individual shallow scrapes in vegetation or earth.

Mountain hare

The hardy mountain hare is our only truly montane/arctic mammal and is restricted to Scotland’s high ground (generally above 300 to 400m). This isn’t the case in Ireland, where the brown hare was absent. Grey-brown in summer to blend with the heath, the mountain hare’s coat turns white in winter, to match the snow.

Heather moorland that’s actively managed for grouse provides an optimum habitat for mountain hares. Muirburn helps to ensure that young heather growth is always available. For cover, hares often use patches of woodland, including conifer plantations, next to moors.

Rotational burning plus predator control as part of heather moorland management benefits both mountain hares and red grouse. With this combination, hare densities can reach 30 to 70 individuals per sq km – and exceptionally 200 or more individuals per sq km. (Typical densities elsewhere are much lower, generally 2 to 5 individuals per sq km.) Hare numbers go up and down – by ten-fold or more – on a cyclical basis, peaking about every nine years or so.

Mountain hares are a quarry species that have long been shot for sport. Hares are also legitimately controlled for other reasons, including to protect young trees. In some cases, culls of mountain hares have been carried out to reduce tick loads, to benefit grouse and other bird survival. This form of management is only likely to be effective, however, when other tick hosts such as deer are absent, which is not the case for many estates in Scotland.

Brown hare

Russet brown, with very large ears and a black-and-white tail, the brown hare is most often found in arable areas. This species prefers farms with mixed crops, as it needs some permanent cover. Or it may take cover in nearby hedgerows, strips of woodland or set aside.

Brown hares declined in number during much of 20th century, mainly due to changes in farming practice. The current trend is less clear.

Rabbit

Rabbits are important prey for birds of prey and mammals such as the wildcat. And though they may cause damage, rabbits can also help to maintain some grassland habitats by providing open patches for small plants. The rabbit has many natural predators but its numbers are controlled mainly by disease.

Threats to mountain hares

Mountain hare numbers decline where heather has been removed by:

  • grazing by sheep
  • high densities of deer
  • conversion to forestry

Young forestry plantations can support high densities of hares, but numbers decline when the forest canopy closes and the ground vegetation diminishes.

On some western Scottish moors, mountain hares are now rare.

Climate change may enable the brown hare to occupy higher ground, putting the mountain hare under pressure in its natural range.

Problems caused by hares and rabbits

Like deer, the mountain hare, brown hare and rabbit are important browsing species whose activities can significantly alter vegetation structure and composition.

All three species can occur at high enough densities to cause ecological and economic damage, e.g. by browsing young trees and preventing regrowth.

Protection of hares and rabbits

Find out about hares as protected species.

Read about hares and licensing.

Report a sighting

Find out how to submit records of mammal sightings on The Mammal Society website.