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Why hares box and other 'mad March' questions answered

With long ears, long legs and a long stride, the brown hare is one of the UK's more elusive but also most endearing mammals.

These creatures live quite differently from their rabbit relatives, especially with their infamous boxing skills, as we find out on the Smithills Estate.

Once a common sight, it is thought the brown hares in the UK have decreased by up to 80% in the last century, largely due to changes in farming techniques. This means that sightings of brown hares are very important in the fight to conserve it.

What are the differences between hares and rabbits

The brown hare is a member of group of mammals called Lagomorpha. For many years it was thought that these creatures were rodents but we now know that hares belong to their own separate family.

The other common Lagomorpha that you can see in our countryside is, of course, the rabbit. This is a much more familiar species but at a glance it can be difficult to tell the two apart.

But on closer inspection, there are several characteristics that separate the two:

  • Although rabbits are known for having long ears, the ears of the brown hare are markedly longer with black tips
  • As the two animals move, you can see that the back legs on a hare are much longer than on a rabbit - This makes it look like the rabbit hops and the hare sprints
  • Rabbits live underground in warrens and when disturbed head for home whereas hares never go underground, preferring ditches along field edges which can mean much longer sprints over open ground

Any one of these three can tell you that you have a hare or a rabbit. So where do you start looking to find the hare?

(Photo: J Bohdal)

How to find brown hares

Unlike rabbits, hares live solitary lives above ground. They can often be spotted at dawn and dusk out in open fields.

Having excellent hearing, hares are good at detecting potential danger through sound. So using a good pair of binoculars is the best way to observe this mammal without causing disturbance.

Your car can also offer a great ‘hare hide’. Park up by a field and any nearby hares are far less likely to head for cover than if you were leaning on a fence.

Why do hares box?

Hares are famous in this country for their energetic behaviour, and March in particular is when they are known to ‘box’ frantically with one another.

These 'mad March hares' are in their mating season, with the males (bucks) seeking out any females (does) that have come into season.

The bucks however are not the ones responsible for the famous boxing, not with each other anyway. Instead it is the does that initiate the behaviour.

This usually happens when a male is being too persistent with a female, chasing her across fields in an attempt to mate. Eventually when she has had enough, she’ll turn around and try to fend him off in a fierce boxing match!

(Photo: J Bohdal)

Protecting the brown hares on the Smithills Estate

We’re working to protect and encourage the brown hares living on our Smithills Estate near Bolton. The first thing we’ll be doing is surveying the site to determine exactly where our brown hares are, what habitats they use and how many are on site.

Following survey results, we will look at the possibility of increasing hare-friendly habitat, such as areas of rough grassland. We will also improve the footpath network and local signage will help reduce the effects of human disturbance by having clearer routes for visitors to take.

With such dramatic decrease in population over the last century, the hares of Smithills are not just important locally, but nationally. Because of their significance, we’re also hoping to engage local residents in brown hare spotting and surveying to help secure the future of the species.

Report your hare sightings

If you see a hare on site at Smithills, or any other wood near you, your records could help conserve the species.

You can report any sightings of brown hares to your local record centre, or send them to the brown Hare Preservation Trust.

With the help of your records along HLF funding, we hope not only to protect the Smithills hare population but ensure their future for generations to come.