The other lagomorph (hare-like animal)

The European or Brown Hare is a long-eared, long-legged, rabbit-like, herbivorous mammal which is largely nocturnal.  It was introduced into Australia, from England, in the 1830s and to Victoria in the early 1860s, as a game animal.  It is found throughout the state, but never in large numbers, and is usually absent from wet and damp forests.  Hares were categorised as vermin under the Vermin and Noxious Weed Act 1958 but are now less formally classified as pest animals under Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994.

The most significant introduction of the European Hare to Victoria was in 1863 when the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria established a breeding colony on Phillip Island in Westernport, about 80 km south-east of Melbourne.  The colony was a success and numbers were soon large enough for hares to be released onto the mainland for the sport of coursing - hunting of hares (or other small animals) over open ground with greyhounds or other sight-hounds (traditional fox-hunting uses scent-hounds).  In England this sport was widespread at all levels of society but in the early colony of Victoria the only participants were from the upper echelons.  The Victorian Coursing Club was established and run by the wealthy Chirnside family and its presidents included the Governors of NSW, Tasmania and South Australia.  As a consequence of this limited hunting pressure the European Hare spread quite rapidly across the state and by the early 1900s the numbers in western Victoria were so large that the species was a major agricultural problem.

Lepus europaeus - European Hare
European Hare 

Although the hare was very successful at colonising Victoria its populations never reached the spectacular proportions of the European Rabbit - Oryctolagus cuniculus.  One of the reasons for this may be that rabbits are colonial animals that bear young in deep, complex burrows while hares are relatively solitary and rear their young in nests built in the undergrowth.  Where conditions are favourable rabbits may dig huge burrow systems which are defended by collaborative adults.  A female rabbit can reproduce several times a year at any time conditions are favourable, the young are weaned at about one month and females may produce litters of their own after five months.  The reproductive strategy for hares is similar although the cycle is longer and slower, and fewer young are born in each litter.  In addition the young may be more susceptible to predation by snakes, goannas and raptors.

Hares are less visible in the landscape than rabbits as they are usually nocturnal while rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular).  But the damage created by rabbit burrows, especially in areas susceptible to soil erosion, makes their presence even more noticeable and is one of the major reasons that graziers came to mount destruction campaigns against the species.  Hares competed with livestock for food but rabbits also destroyed the pasture and the soil it grew from.

The European Hare may have been less successful than the rabbit in invading Australia but its natural geographic range is much broader.  The European Rabbit is native only to Spain and Portugal and has been introduced to many other countries around the world by English and other European explorers and settlers.  Lepus europaeus is native to most of continental Europe, the Middle East and central Asia.  Some biologists believe that the European Hare is a subspecies of the similar Cape Hare, Lepus capensis, which, if true, would mean that the species natural range also extends across much of Africa.

Australians have little trouble regarding rabbits and hares as introduced animals.  Both were clearly brought here by the English as part of a program to make the country look and feel more like home.  The irony is that neither species is native to England.  The rabbit was introduced by the Normans during the 12th century and although modern English wildlife books will all point this out, the rabbit is still considered by most English people to be a natural part of the countryside.  The hare, on the other hand, is still categorised as native to England by many modern texts even though the current evidence is that it was probably introduced by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago.

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases