Found all over the UK, the hare, the bigger cousin of the rabbit, is often seen bounding around fields, their long ears up high. For hare lovers, however, there is much concern that something is going around causing havoc within hare populations; sadly, a number of hares have been found sick or dead, mostly in East Anglia, with no apparent explanation why. As there has been no answer as to what has caused these deaths yet, researchers need the help of the public to get to the bottom of this mystery.
The UK has two species of hares, the European, or brown hare, and the mountain hare. The brown hare is found all over the UK, but the mountain hare is only found in Scotland and Ireland. Unlike the mountain hare, the more common brown hare is not native to the UK, but may have been introduced by the Romans. Although hunting them with hounds has been banned, a number of hunts still go on illegally, and shooting is still allowed. Between shooting, illegal coursing, and dramatic changes in Britain’s agriculture, hare numbers are dropping, so a mystery disease could prove devastating.
Since we need help identifying disease in hares, it is important to know the difference between hares and rabbits. Hares are generally bigger, have longer ears, and will have black markings on their fur. In winter, the mountain hare may be white, but the brown hare will fade to a grey colour. They aren’t a domesticated species, so any pets you see will be rabbits (confusingly, “Belgian Hares” are actually a breed of rabbit!).
What Might Be Killing Our Hares
There hasn’t been any definitive answer yet, but two diseases have been suspected as the most likely cause of hare deaths. These are myxomatosis, or myxi, and rabbit haemorrhagic disease 2 (RHD2). Both are fatal diseases that generally only affect rabbits. However, there has been limited evidence that both can infect and kill hares. The symptoms in rabbits – high fever, lethargy, breathing problems, runny or bloody eyes, noses and anus, and death – may be similar in hares, if these diseases are indeed causing the deaths.
Myxomatosis has previously infected individual hares in Europe, and there has been one case confirmed in the UK. However, recently there were a larger number of confirmed hare deaths in Spain, which demonstrates myxi may now be able to infect hares more easily. If this is the case, it could prove disastrous – myxi wiped out around 99% of UK rabbits when it first entered the UK in the 1950s, and could kill a similar number of already endangered hares if it spreads easily.
On the other hand, RHD2 does more commonly affect hares in Europe, but has so far never been seen in British hares. It can be highly destructive to rabbit populations, but has not yet been significantly damaging to Europe’s hares. There may, of course, be another disease or cause of so many hare deaths, but none has yet been identified.
How you can help
Research on hare deaths cannot be done without samples – as researchers cannot possibly find and investigate every diseased hare, the help of the general public is needed. If you find a sick or dead hare, there are a few things you can do to help. First of all, however, be careful not to put yourself in danger. Avoid roads and busy areas when approaching the hare. Also avoid direct contact with the hare, as it may contain bacteria or parasites. Care should be especially taken if the hare is still alive, as it can be dangerous.
If the hare is already dead, the best thing you can do is collect the body. You should wear gloves and put it in a thick plastic bag you can seal – this will then need to be stored in the freezer. Do not feel you have to do this, especially if you are not confident. If you cannot collect it, try and take some pictures of the body, especially the face, anus, and any other areas that look diseased. In both cases, record the time and location you found it.
If you find a sick hare, again, if you are not confident in collecting it, take photographs and leave it. Although it is unfortunate, nature will take its course. If you do want to, you can collect it, using gloves, and it can be taken to a vets. Be extremely careful in picking it up and transporting it. Most vets will opt to put it to sleep, especially if it is infected with a disease, and will then report it for you.
This project is being run by Dr Diana Bell, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia School of Biological Science, Norwich. She is requesting members of the public who find or photograph hares to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org – she will then reply with details on how to collect the hare if necessary. Once photographs and samples have been collected, research can be done to hopefully identify what is causing hare deaths, and perhaps help reduce the problem. It is only through the help of people like you that more work can be done to save the British hare, so please report any hare deaths to her. You can learn more about her work here.