Rabbit vs hare: what's the difference?
A hare might look very similar to a rabbit, but they are two very different species, with very different social structures. Nicole Wallace takes a look at how they differ
Whilst exploring the British countryside, it’s likely you may have spotted a rabbit or brown hare, but did you realise that they are two different animals – and do you know which one you spotted? Although the two species belong to the same family, they are in many ways, world's apart.
Both rabbits and hares were both introduced to the UK from Europe (rabbits by the Normans and hares by the Romans) but are now fully naturalised species. They are now widespread and accepted as an important part of the ecosystem in Britain, providing food for much of our native wildlife such as foxes, birds of prey, wildcats and badgers.
Are rabbits and hares related?
The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and brown hare (Lepus europaeus) are part of a group called the Lagomorphs (which also includes pikas) with the family name Leporidae, which translates from Latin as “Those that resemble lepus” (lepus meaning hare).
Being prey animals, both are highly alert and designed for speed to be able to make a quick getaway from predators, so if all you see is a frantic brown and white blur then it may be difficult to tell them apart. The key differences below should help you more easily make an identification next time you see one.
How to tell the difference between a hare and a rabbit
The most visually obvious difference between a hare and a rabbit is its size. Rabbits are much smaller than hares, measuring up to 40cm in length and weighing 1.2-2kg. In comparison, hares can reach up to 70cm and weigh from 2-5kg.
Colour-wise, hares are a grizzled russet brown with pale bellies, amber eyes, black-topped white tails and longer black-tipped ears. Rabbits are more of a grey brown, have shorter ears, dark brown eyes and a fluffy white cotton ball tail – which is what you see usually flashing as they dash off towards their warren.
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Hare vs rabbit: where do they live and what do they eat?
The two species are similar in that they are most active at dawn, dusk and at night, and are both coprophagous, meaning that they pass food through their digestive system twice, which helps them to extract as much valuable nutrients from plant matter as possible.
They do this by ingesting their faecal pellets from the first stage of digestion. Although both species are herbivorous, they have long incisor teeth and chew their food sideways.
Where do hares live and what do they eat?
Unlike the rabbit, the hare is a shy solitary animal, living its whole life above ground and sleeping in a shallow dip called a form. With no kin to alert it to predators, the hare's comparatively long and powerful back legs give it an advantage, allowing it to reach speeds of up to 45mph, compared to the rabbit's top speed of 35mph.
Hares favour a mosaic of arable farmland, grassland and woodland edges, because of their need to be able to find cover quickly, and because of their diet of tender grass shoots, cereal crops and the bark of young trees and bushes.
Where do rabbits live and what do they eat?
Rabbits are much more sociable and live in large groups that commune together while grazing, keeping watch for each other. They live together in underground warrens.
Rabbits live in similar grassy habitats to hares but prefer a less-woody diet of grass and other soft plant matter that they can find whilst not roaming too far from their warrens – this may include your prized allotment vegetables.
Nicole Wallace is a Clyde Valley Ranger with the Scottish Wildlife Trust
Brown hare | Species profile | Scottish Wildlife Trust
Brown hare | The Wildlife Trusts
Species – Brown Hare – The Mammal Society
Guide to rabbits and hares | Countryfile.com
Mountain hare | Mammal | Scottish wildlife | Scottish Wildlife Trust
Species – Mountain hare – The Mammal Society
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