Ontario is home to five species of rabbits and hares. These include the Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus), White-tailed Jack Rabbit (Lepus townsendii), Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus), Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and the main subject of this report, the European Hare (Lepus europaeus). The first two species do not extend into our area at all. Arctic Hare barely get into the most northern parts of the province while the White-tailed Jack Rabbit is included on the basis of a few records from the Rainy River District. The Snowshoe Hare is our most widespread species in Ontario but we are situated at the southern edge of its range so we do not often encounter it unless we travel a short distance further north. In our area, the species that we are most likely to encounter is the Eastern Cottontail. Their populations go through a cycle of abundance and scarcity. It was seldom if ever encountered by European settlers until the mid-1800s and is regarded by some as a species that has expanded its range into Ontario. Skeletal remains found in a First Nations village in Oxford County prove that the species was here long before the supposed arrival in Ontario in 1868 [MacCrimmon, 1977]. There is little doubt though that after its recent arrival, their populations have dramatically increased as the species spread across all of southern Ontario [Dobbyn, 1994] (Map 1). As well as the five wild species noted above, from time to time, the Domestic Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), escapes from captivity or is purposely released by owners that no longer wish to keep them as pets. These animals do not persist in the wild for any significant period after they are released.
The story of the European Hare is quite well documented [MacCrimmon, 1977]. They were introduced to Ontario just over one hundred years ago although some of that species was introduced some years earlier in the eastern United States. In 1912, Otto Herold, the manager of Bow Park Farm located near Brantford imported seven female and two male hares from Germany. Inevitably, they soon escaped. Their numbers increased and they soon spread in all directions from the Bow Park Farm. It expanded its range to cover most of the area south of the Canadian Shield [Dobbyn, 1994]. The peak populations in Ontario appear to have been reached by about 1950. Later attempts to introduce the species to Thunder Bay and Cochrane areas as a new game species were not successful as the hares could not tolerate the conditions in the north.
In 1921, Howitt  reported quite successful hunting of Jack Rabbits in Beverly Township in Wentworth County about 15 km southeast of Cambridge which was then named Galt. This was only nine years after the Hares had been released.
While the hunting community was happy to have a new game animal, farmers trying to grow grain (e.g. winter wheat,) alfalfa, clover, or orchard crops had to contend with a new pest that damaged their crops, especially during the winter. Wild plants were also consumed by these relatively large animals.
As a youngster growing up on a farm on Mississauga Road, it was fairly commonplace to see these animals in the fields. We viewed these animals, usually referred to as Jack Rabbits, as a normal part of the local fauna and we were generally oblivious to the fact that they were not native. Species such as Groundhogs because of their burrowing and Starlings because they were ‘dirty birds’ were a much greater concern. As well, foxes that occasionally took a turkey from the field were a particular nuisance.
In 1985, we returned from the North to live in this area. A few years later, I began to include mammal sightings in my records and included observations of the European Hares. While the annual numbers of observations were never large, I had records of the species from 1987 to 1998. The records from the GTA are summarized below and the locations are shown in Map 2. Many of the records were made during travel from Acton to Toronto along the Go Train routes. Since 1998, I have not seen the species. The realization that it had been several years since the last observation prompted this report. While there may be other reasons for the disappearance, it would seem that decline in Hares coincided with the increased populations of Coyotes. A parallel decline in numbers of Groundhogs has also occurred in the same general time period. By contrast, Cottontail populations have continued to go through a cyclical pattern.
The local Conservation Authorities (C.V.C, and Conservation Halton) were consulted to determine what records they had in their databases for European Hares. Most of their records were actually ones that I had contributed. The only recent record for the species was a sighting of a Hare at the Frank Tract in Nassagaweya Township by Bob Curry on June 3, 2003. That makes it ten years since we have had a report of the species for our area.
Many thanks are extended to Jacqueline Kiers (C.V.C.) and Brenda van Ryswyk (Conservation Halton) for reviewing their agency records of European Hare.
Dobbyn, J. 1994. Atlas of the Mammals of Ontario. Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Don Mills, Ontario. 118 pp.
Howitt, H. 1925. Another Invasion of Canada. Can. Field-Nat. 39: 158-160. MacCrimmon, H.R. 1977. Animals, Man and Change. Alien and Extinct Wildlife of Ontario. McClelland and Stewart Ltd. Toronto. 160 pp.
by W.D. McIlveen
Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club