The Boundingly Interesting Names of Ireland's Rabbits & Hares
For the last few months, we have been in the company of Ireland’s deer, a fascinating and well-represented mammal group in Irish lands. It might seem strange, then, to transfer our attention this month to Ireland’s hares and rabbits, a smaller group, both in size and representation, whose members are far different to deer in design. However, as we shall see, when it comes to the names of these bounding mammals, and their arrival and subsequent life histories on the island, there are many and unexpected parallels with Ireland’s deer.
There are three types of hare and rabbit inhabiting Ireland today, namely, the mountain hare, the brown hare, and the European rabbit. And though much smaller than the proud-stepping deer, a number of the same names have been conferred upon them. For instance, although in hares males and females are sometimes referred to as jacks and jills, in both rabbits and hares the males and females are usually called bucks and does.
Also, we can find another very strong connection to the island’s deer in the Irish word for ‘hare’, giorria, as this is derived from two Irish words, gearr and fia, the first meaning ‘short’ or ‘small’, while the second means ‘game animal’, or as we have seen previously, ‘deer’. The Irish word for ‘hare’, then, could be translated as ‘little deer’.
And in yet another parallel with the deer they share Irish lands with, Ireland’s hares and rabbits can claim to have one member who has been present on the island for thousands of years, while the others are much more recent arrivals.
Of these three long-eared mammals, the mountain hare is by far the longest inhabitant of Ireland, and this is written into its very name, its scientific title being Lepus timidus hibernicus. All of the elements in this name are derived from Latin, with lepus meaning ‘hare’, timidus meaning ‘timid’, and hibernicus being a reference to Ireland. This three-barrelled name signifies that the mountain hare in Ireland is sufficiently different from the members of its species, Lepus timidus, elsewhere to qualify as a distinct subspecies. So, in this regard, it is similar to the Irish stoat, which is another of Ireland’s endemic mammalian subspecies, and, interestingly, one of the major features which marks both as different to their foreign colleagues is their non-development of a white winter coat.
Ireland’s mountain hares have been on the island, then, for a sufficiently long time to have evolved features not seen in other mountain hares, but just how long it is hard to say. Fossil evidence certainly shows that the mountain hare was one of the earliest species to recolonise Ireland in the late Ice Age after the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 26,000–19,000 years ago), which, at its height, saw Ireland completely covered by a great ice sheet, in places up to a kilometre-and-a-half thick.
But though fossils have been found in the beautiful Kesh Corran Cave Complex in Co. Sligo that date to as early as around 14,300 years ago, it is not known if the mountain hare survived right through the vicious cold snap at the end of the Ice Age from around 12,900–11,700 years ago or recolonised Ireland in the early Holocene (c.11,700 years ago–Present).
In any case, the unique features and behaviours it has evolved have a bearing not only on its scientific subspecies name, hibernicus, but on its common English name, the mountain hare. In Ireland, mountain hares are quite unusual in that they are found at every altitude, from mountaintops to sea level, so for those living at or near the latter elevation, the name ‘mountain hare’ is not really suitable.
Unlike the mountain hare, its relative the brown hare has no major features or behaviours unique to its population in Ireland, and this is not surprising as it is a far, far more recent arrival on the island, having only been introduced in the nineteenth century. And just as the mountain hare’s deep roots in Ireland are encapsulated by its name, so too are the very shallow ones of the brown hare by those bestowed upon it.
There is certainly no Irish-specific nature contained in the elements of its scientific name, Lepus europaeus, simply meaning the ‘European hare’ in Latin, but it is the Irish name and one of its alternative English names that really mark it out as a non-native. Its Irish name, giorria gallda, simply means ‘foreign hare’, while it is also referred to commonly as the ‘English hare’.
Not all of its common names are so discriminatory, though, ‘brown hare’ obviously making no reference to its foreignness and referring simply to the colour of its coat. However, this name is not without its issues either, as though the brown hare’s coat is indeed generally reddish brown in winter and yellowish brown in summer, it can also be quite variable, and as its coloration often includes a speckled or mottled appearance, this explains why it is also sometimes called the ‘thrush hare’.
Getting back to its arrival in Ireland, though, we find yet another link to Ireland’s deer, as the brown hare appears to have been introduced to many estates to be used for hunting, and an association of hares in general with hunting may be the reason their Irish name means ‘little deer/game animal’.
In the case of the brown hare’s introduction in the nineteenth century to estates such as Powerscourt in Co. Wicklow (in 1865, just five years before its sika deer were introduced), it appears the reason was for coursing, due to its particular traits as a runner. Brown hares are incredibly fast – in fact, they can claim the title of ‘fastest of all smaller mammals’, capable of reaching speeds of over 70 kilometres an hour. Although the mountain hares themselves are no slouches, recorded hitting speeds of 64 kilometres an hour, this greater speed of the brown hare was considered more exciting by those interested in coarsing, while it was also more suitable in being less evasive than the mountain hare which, though slower, is more adept at twisting and turning at speed.
Like many of Ireland’s deer, then, the presence of the brown hare on the island is due to human action. And the same can be said of its relative, the European rabbit, which was also brought to Ireland by humans, albeit seven centuries before the brown hare, in the twelfth century when the Normans invaded from Britain. And the arrival of the rabbit from our nearest island to the east seems to be written into its Irish name, coinín.
Coinín may actually derive from the Old English word cony, which, up until the eighteenth century was used to refer to adult rabbits, while the word ‘rabbit’ itself was used to refer only to the young. Over time, of course, this has changed, and we now refer to adults as rabbits and their young as kittens.
But while wee rabbits are referred to as kittens, the young of hares have a different name, being known as leverets. ‘Leveret’ is an odd-looking word, but it can be traced back to the Latin word for ‘hare’, lepus, via the Old French levrat, a diminutive of levre, which itself comes from the Latin lepore that derives from lepus.
Whether we are talking of kittens or leverets, though, what is in no doubt whatsoever is just how many of these rabbits and hares can produce in one year. Like the rabbits of this species in most countries, Ireland’s wild rabbits are the descendants of domestic forms that were originally bred by the Romans and selected for their high reproductive rates. The figures speak for themselves: with a gestation period of just 30 days, a female European rabbit can give birth to between three and seven litters a year, each containing five or six kittens. By the age of just five or six months old, the female young are themselves able to start breeding.
But though the fecundity of Ireland’s rabbits is unrivalled by the island’s hares, whose gestation periods of around 50 days mean the females produce only two or three litters a year, in one respect they have them licked. Whereas female rabbits can mate and conceive a new litter within the 24 hours after just giving birth, astonishingly, female hares go one better, being able to mate and conceive a new litter even before they have given birth to their current one, meaning they can be pregnant with two litters at the same time!
The reproductive activities of hares, occasioned by bouts of boxing, kicking, and chasing, have also given rise to one of the most recognisable phrases in the English language, ‘as mad as a March hare’, the origins of which are succinctly explained in The Encyclopedia of Mammals, edited by David W. Macdonald:
‘“Mad as a March hare,” people say, recalling the seemingly wild behavior of hares in the mating season (January–August). At this time does are receptive for just a few hours on one day in each of their six-weekly cycles, perhaps six well-spaced days in all. Local bucks then compete for their favors; the dominant males strive to keep all others at bay, while the doe herself will fight off any approach before she is ready. “Mad” behavior becomes visible in March only because the nights, which hares prefer for their activities, become shorter, forcing them to enter the daylight arena.’
But though Macdonald here is referring only to brown hares, it has become a worry in Ireland that mountain hares have been seen engaging in this violent reproductive behaviour with brown hares (and so are not as timid as their scientific name suggests), leading to fears over hybridisation and what it would mean for the conservation of the mountain hare as a distinct form. In this, then, we find yet another link to Ireland’s deer, as the integrity of the island’s red deer as a species has already been compromised in a number of locations through interbreeding with sika deer and wapiti, as we saw previously.
In the end, then, it is clear that though we could not have suspected it from the outset, there are many, many parallels between Ireland’s rabbits and hares and the island’s deer. Though a world away from one another in terms of size, features, and behaviours, they seem to stand on the very same ground when it comes to their names, arrival on the island, and level of human interference in their lives. In this sense, at least, then, Ireland’s rabbits and hares truly deserve to be called ‘little deer’.