Jeff Green | Jul 09, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - July 9, 2009 The European Brown Hareby Lorraine Julien Tumbling head over heels on a downhill sprint, with a straight away run up to 70 km/h, then an uphill streak on really long legs – this is the European Brown Hare (Lepus Europaeus) and why he is a challenge for predators. He’s also wily “like a fox” using tricks like doubling back on a trail when being pursued. These are some of the antics of this strange looking rabbit that took up residence near our home early this spring. I’d never seen anything like it before.
Then one day, my neighbours cut down a small pine tree near their cottage. Unfortunately, it fell across a spreading juniper which was sheltering a cozy little nest with young bunnies in it. Luckily the babies, which are more properly called “leverets”, survived. As it turns out, I’ve learned they are European Hares (sometimes now known as the Eastern Jackrabbit)!
We were concerned that Mother Hare would not come back to look after her little ones but, when all was quiet, some time during the night, she did return to feed and look after them.
I decided to check into these odd-looking rabbits and found that they were introduced to Ontario in 1912 by a farmer from Germany who had recently moved to Cambridge. His stock of nine hares escaped from his farm and the European hare or jackrabbit was soon to be found all over Southern Ontario, New York State and New England. The species was well adapted to their new environment and spread throughout southern Ontario as far east as Gananoque by the early 1950s and north to Ottawa by 1961. From what I can determine, they’ve stayed primarily south of the Canadian Shield but, obviously, some are moving northward. We are lucky that the European Hare has natural enemies (wolf, fox, eagle, owl, coyotes, and bobcats) as well as humans and dogs, so that their numbers have been relatively contained and damage to farmers’ crops has been minimal.
Other than camouflage, speed is its only defence. The fur is medium brown over its back and head while the underside and legs are a contrasting cream or white colour.
At 25 to 27.5 inches long (64 to 70 cm), they’re much larger than our native rabbits, weighing from three to six kilograms (up to 13 or 14 lb). The babies are born fully furred and able to run within hours. Their large ears could be described as “donkey ears”. Probably the term “jackrabbit” came about because of the long ears that reminded farmers of the big ears of a jackass or donkey.
These alien hares prefer open fields where they can munch on grass, clover, and herbs during the summer. During the winter, they survive on twigs and bark. Usually shy, their behaviour completely changes in spring when they can be seen chasing one another around fields in broad daylight. During this spring frenzy, hares can be seen “boxing”. At first it was thought only males boxed as they competed for territory but closer observation has revealed that the females can be involved in the melees and will strike out at males. It would certainly seem that displays such as this would quell any amorous desires on the part of the males!
In doing some research into other rabbits, I’ve found that the Snowshoe Hare was once Ontario’s only bunny. Even the Eastern Cottontail apparently hopped northward to Ontario across the U.S. border some time in the mid-1800s, taking up residence on the edge of forests northward to just past Algonquin Park.