Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Lepus timidus hibernicus – irish hare

Lepus timidus hibernicus

Lepus timidus hibernicus Bell, 1837
Family: Leporidae

Found only in Ireland, the Irish hare is a subspecies of the mountain hare. Once widespread and common, the species is believed to have declined significantly since the 1970s. The present population is estimated to be between 59,700 and 86,900 – this is over three times the number believed present in 2002. Young hares hidden in fields are often killed during silage cutting. The wet springs of the past few years have delayed early silage cutting in many areas and this is thought to have contributed to the recent increase in the population.

In brief

  • Found throughout Northern Ireland in suitable habitat

  • Prefers undisturbed grassland

  • Active mainly at night at all times of the year

  • Found only in Ireland

  • Population has declined by 25 per cent over the last 25 years

  • Main threats to the population are changes in farming practice, the increased use of farm machinery, high livestock densities and the decrease in the variety of grasses grown on farmland.

Species description
Hares are much larger than rabbits and have long back legs with very big feet. Females (jills) are slightly bigger than males (jacks) and can weigh up to 4kg. In summer the upper fur is reddish-brown while the belly fur is a much lighter cream colour. The winter coat is greyer, some individuals may develop white patches but, in general, Irish hares do not turn completely white in winter. The ears are long with black tips and the tail is usually white and easily seen when the hare is running away. The fur on the top of the tail may become darker in summer, causing confusion with brown hares whose tails are always black on top.

Life cycle
The Irish hare is active mostly at night. During the day it rests, well hidden, in a flattened patch of grass or hollow in the soil called a form. Diet varies depending on where the hare lives. A variety of grasses are eaten but in upland areas, sedges, heather, thyme and woody plants are also taken. Hares and rabbits produce soft droppings during the day that they swallow, without chewing; this allows their food to pass through the gut twice. The familiar hard fibrous pellets are excreted when the hare is active. Young hares (leverets) are born from January through to early autumn. Hares give birth on top of the ground, not in burrows. The babies are born fully-furred with their eyes open; they can run shortly after birth. There can be up to four young in a litter and females can produce three or four litters a year. To avoid predators, the young leverets move to separate hiding places usually in long grass. The mother comes back once a day just after sunset to feed them. After around five weeks the mother does not return and the young hares have to survive on their own. In spring, hares often form large groups and can be seen boxing, kicking and leaping around (mad March hare). These are courtship and mating displays with males fighting over females and females discouraging unwanted males. This behaviour continues throughout the breeding season but may be less noticeable as the grass becomes longer.

Similar species
The brown hare was introduced into Northern Ireland in the mid-1800s for sporting purposes but had more or less died out in most areas by the early 1900s. A small number may still survive in County Tyrone and mid-Ulster.

How to see this species
Hares are active mainly at night and are therefore difficult to see – early morning or at dusk in springtime, when the grass is still short, is the best time to spot hares easily. They prefer undisturbed areas where there is plenty of ground cover.

Current status
Irish hares are found throughout Ireland in a range of habitats from well-managed pastureland through to upland bogs, golf courses, forestry plantations and airfields. The present population is estimated to be between 59,700 and 86,900 animals. Their legal protection is listed below:

  • Limited protection under the Games Acts and Schedule 6 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985

  • Listed in Annex V (a) of the EU Directive 92/43/EEC (Habitats Directive)

  • Listed as an internationally important Irish Red Data Book species.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Genetically distinct subspecies of the mountain hare endemic to Ireland

  • Population has declined by 25 per cent over the last 25 years.

Threats/Causes of decline
Changes in farming practice – the increased use of farm machinery, high livestock (cows and sheep) densities and the decrease in the variety of grasses grown on farmland have all contributed to the decline in the Irish hare population.

Loss of daytime resting sites, particularly rushes and good quality hedgerows.

Hare coursing - although a protected animal the Irish hare is classified as a game species and can be hunted and coursed (chased with muzzled greyhounds) between 12t August and 31 January. At present, due to concerns over the decline in numbers of this species, there is a temporary ban on hare coursing in Northern Ireland.

Conservation of this species

Current action
A Northern Ireland Species Action Plan was published in 2000.

An all-Ireland Species Action Plan was published in 2005.

  • Three Irish hare surveys, commissioned by EHS have been carried out recently in Northern Ireland (2002, 2004, 2005)

  • Voluntary agri-environment schemes, such as Environmental Sensitive Areas (ESAs) and the new Countryside Management Scheme (CMS)

  • Implementation of the Northern Ireland habitat action plans for all the relevant habitats for the Irish hare.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Maintain the existing range of Irish hares in Ireland

  • Double present population by 2010 over as much of the range as possible

  • Maintain and increase the area and quality of suitable hare habitat.

What you can do
To report Irish hare sightings contact CEDaR, Tel: 028 9039 5264.

Further information

Northern Ireland Species Action Plan

All Ireland Species Action Plan

Northern Ireland Hare Survey 2004

Northern Ireland Irish Hare Survey 2002

Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans

Northern Ireland's Mammals, Amphibians & Reptiles


Text written by:
Angela Ross, Curator of Vertebrates, Ulster Museum

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database