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The History of Belgian Hares in the US (and What They're Like as Pets)


Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

What Is a Belgian Hare?

Belgian Hares are sometimes considered the most elegant of rabbit breeds. They have very long ears that stand upright, a long deer-like face, large expressive eyes, extremely long finger-like toes, and the most rounded back of any rabbit breed. Their sleek appearance coupled with their agility and speed has given them the nickname "The Racehorse of Rabbits."

However, these rabbits aren't just a pretty face; they're also potentially the smartest of the rabbit breeds and are extremely physically active in comparison to some more known breeds. To add to their charm, they have a rich and interesting history.

The Beginning of the Breed

Belgian Hares were first developed in the 1800s for their use as a meat animal. In these early days, Belgian breeders tried crossing a now-extinct rabbit breed, the leporine, with wild European hares. In these early days, the idea may have been to give their meat the flavor of a wild hare; however, when they were imported to England in the late 1870s, they began to split into two distinct breeds for two distinct purposes.

Meat or Looks?

One branch was bred for size to produce a better meat rabbit; these were the bases of the Flemish Giant breed. The second branch, which turned into the Belgian Hares we know today, were bred more for their appearance. They were bred back to English wild hares until they looked sufficiently like their wild counterparts.

A Unique Ruddy Color

Rabbits with ruddy red coloration were favored, and this became the most recognized color in the breed. The ruddy color is rarely seen in other breeds, and it resembles the ticked coloration of an Abyssinian cat.

Belgian Hares Make Waves in the US

In the United States, rabbits were kept almost exclusively as meat animals for the vast majority of its history. Pet and exhibition rabbits were pretty unheard of when, in 1888, an E.M. Hughes imported the first Belgian Hares into the United States. He collaborated with two others, W.N Richardson and G.W. Fenton, to bring these new exotic animals to small livestock shows across the country and promote their ownership.

These early years were slow to gain traction, and the Belgian Hare was little more than a novelty until the Great Belgian Hare Boom of 1900. The efforts to promote them had gone from not having enough people to maintain a single club to having over 600 large rabbitries (with 75–1,000 head each.)

"Fancy" Rabbits Sold for Exorbitant Prices

In these days, there were still two branches of hares: the utilitarian meat rabbits and the "fancy" exhibition hares who were far finer in appearance. The fancy variety continued to both be bred here in the US and imported from Europe. Hares who were winning the wildly popular shows were fetching outrageous prices. Many sold for up to $1,000 a head, which was a handsome sum when 15 cents a day was considered decent wages for a laborer.

Boom and Bust

Of course, these pricey animals made the breed the first in the US to be popular as pets. They could be found in farmsteads and homes alike, but by 1917, the boom had broken. Too many hares had flooded the market, their prices dropped, and people eventually lost interest.

Belgian Hares Suffer a Blow From Industrialized Farming

Belgian Hares are an energetic breed that need a lot of room to bounce around and keep up the muscle in their hind legs. They also need a solid surface to sit on to rest their toes or they are extremely prone to breaking them or getting infections from wearing them down on the wire. Most breeders today suggest a cage at least six feet long, two feet wide, and two feet tall.

Hares Suffered in Small Cages

Traditionally, this sort of enclosure would have been the norm in homesteads across the US raising meat rabbits, but when rabbit breeding became industrialized, most rabbits found themselves housed singly in tiny wire cages. Hares did not fare well in this setting. Besides adding stress from being unable to exercise and the health problems they were prone to living on wire, they also suffered mentally and refused to breed in these conditions. It wasn't long before hares became very rare.

Today, the vast majority of Belgian Hare owners are exhibition breeders who fall in love with the sleek appearance but all too commonly get out of keeping the breed due to their space requirements. They have had a hard time making it back into the pet trade mostly because, in the US, even off the industrial farms, it's considered normal husbandry to keep rabbits in very small cages.

My Three Belgian Hares

However, I have been lucky enough to own three of these beautiful animals, and they have all made wonderful pets. My two boys litterbox-trained almost immediately, and I gain much joy watching them bound full speed around the house.

Belgian Hares are almost extinct in the US today. I stumbled upon my first one and then spent two and a half years trying to find him a mate, which I had to have shipped. I continue to look for other breeders, but they're harder to find than a needle in a haystack if you're not part of the show world.

Hares in the US Versus Europe

Sadly, in the US, Belgian Hares now only come in one recognized color, ruddy, and suffer from inbreeding. Their lifespan in Europe remains the highest of any rabbit breed at 7–10 years, while in the US it's actually shorter than most rabbit breeds at around 3–4 years. European breeders have four recognized colors: Ruddy, White, Black, and Black & Tan.

Personally, I hold hope for importation to expand the bloodlines and regain health and vigor. In the meantime, I am an advocate for Belgian Hares as pets and larger enclosures for all rabbit breeds.

Hare Personality

Hares are a very energetic breed and in some cases can be stressed out by loud noises and changes in their environment. This can mean that certain sensitive individuals can be at risk of dying from shock to any of these circumstances. That being said, mine got used to dogs barking, power tools, and loud music without a problem. They do startle pretty easy, though, and if they are running free this could mean a lost rabbit pretty fast! They are extremely quick and can get very far ahead of you in the blink of an eye.

They are however extremely smart animals, usually very easy to litterbox train. They learn their names quickly and can be trained easily for jumping competitions or to do other tricks. If they're handled when young they make for exceptionally affectionate pets. As with most rabbits they also make for quiet companions. I have found mine all have a different sense of humor and are quirky and individualistic.

Having had many breeds of rabbits over the years I have found these Belgians to be almost completely different. I compare owning them more to what it's like to own a particularly odd cat. My current male for instance can jump up onto tables. I am really not sure how he does this, there's a small possibility he's learned how to fly, but there he is, sitting there staring at me from the table!

Hare Health

Belgian Hares in the US suffer from a series of health conditions. First their delicate feet are prone to having broken toes and bumble foot infections and need to be checked routinely for these issues. And since their backs are so arched and their energy level is so high they can suffer from broken backs if they flip out and twist while running.

Degenerative spinal disorders are also known to affect some lines. This usually causes older bucks to slowly loose control of their hind legs and eventually their bladder and bowel. If allowed to continue this disorder usually ends in death from sepsis when they lose the ability to poop. There is work being done by breeders to figure out if this is a genetic issue (which I suspect from breeding fancy rats who showed up with the same problem years ago) or if it is just inherent in the whole breed.

Hares, like any rabbit, can sometimes have misaligned teeth that will need trimming if they can't grind them down on their own. They are notoriously hard to breed for many reasons and I wouldn't suggest spaying or neutering simply because the stress would likely be detrimental to them. Between strange smells, a stressful environment, dogs barking, and the possibility of reacting badly to the anesthesia (a risk all rabbits have) I wouldn't personally risk it.

Finally Belgian Hares do poorly in excessively hot weather and can die of heat stroke pretty quick. I'm honestly not sure how they fair in cold as I haven't had to deal with the issue myself. With all this being said most of their health concerns can be taken care of just by knowing what to look for and I wouldn't avoid the breed just for these issues by any means.


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Belgian Hares are not really hares, but rabbits. True hares are born with fur and their eyes and ears open, like most wild rabbits. They are beautiful and graceful rabbits that require special housing, a lot of attention and care. They were originally known as the "Race Horse of the Fancy" but are now known as"King of the Fancy".

European Hare European Rabbit

Belgian Hares originated from "Leoporines" which were developed in the early 1700s in Flanders, in Eastern Europe. They were developed by breeding domestic "Old World" or "European" rabbits to wild European Hares, mainly for meat. The "Leporines" were imported from Belgium and Germany to England in the 1870s. There they were bred with two goals in mind. One goal was size and the other to make them look more like wild hares. The ones bred for size were called "Patagonians", which are now known as Flemish Giants. The others were named Belgian Hares. The "Leporines" that were redder colored were used for the Belgians to get the color that more resembled the wild hares. Early breeders selectivly bred to make the Belgians look more and more like their wild hares. The aim was to produce a meat rabbit that was beautiful and practical.

Soon the breeders were competing to see who had the best rabbits and in 1882 a standard was written. By 1889 the focus had changed from a meat rabbit, to a show rabbit with a more lean and racy appearence and the standard was changed to reflect this. It was in 1888 that Belgian Hares first came to America and were shown at small fairs and stock shows. During the next 12 years large rabbitries were built, mainly in California, and many were inported from Europe. It was very expensive to this as each one could cost between $500 to $1,000. But their popularity continued to increase and The American Belgian Hare Club was organized. They held their first exhibition in 1900.

The club had written two standards for Belgian Hares. One was for "Standard Fancy", 8 pound with a thin, fine boned and racy appearance, and the other for "Heavy Weight" or Commercial Hares, 11 pounds full breast and heavy boned.

By the 1920s the importing boom had stopped as there were plenty of home grown hares to be had for much less money and their popularity started to wane. Some people feel that the introduction of the "Heavy Weight" standard and going back to breeding them for meat contributed greatly to the decline. For many years after this, the decline in popularity decreased even more and when the American Rabbit Breeder's Association was formed, only the "Fancy Standard" remained. Also, during the depression, their large space requirements , difficulty in breeding and serving no other purpose other than showing, their numbers in the US rapidly dwindled. However, since the turn of this century, they are again growing in popularity and more and more people are enjoying breeding and showing these beautiful rabbits.

Belgian Hares are a high arch breed with a flyback type coat. They are long and narrow rabbits with a back line showing a continuous arch from the nape of the neck to the tail. They have a long head, long ears and long legs. Their flanks are muscular and have well rounded hind quarters. Belgian Hares are fine bones with a straight long tail, long fore feet and straight, fine, long and flat hind feet. Their eyes are large and bold and are surrounded by light circles which give them a wild, alert expression.

The color of Standard Belgian Hares is a rich chestnut shade with a brillant black, wavy ticking over their back and hips. Ideally they weigh between 6 and eight pounds. Belgian Hares are very graceful in their movements and they prance around more like a ballet dancer, than the normal hopping rabbit. When shown, they should be posed in their natural pose with their ears erect, on their front toes, body showing its beautiful arch, with eyes wild and alert. You will see this pose over and over when they are at home, getting them to pose on a judging table at a show takes time and practice.

Belgian Hares are considered to be a high strung breed and can react unexpectedly to being startled or scared. However, they can have a very sweet and loveable temperament. They are one of the most intelligent of rabbit breeds. They are sociable, learn their name and are easily trained to use a litterbox. They are a very energenic breed and are very active rabbits. They have a very fast metabolisim rate requiring a lot of exersize and are almost always in motion. They love to move and prance around. They are not generally suited for young children due to their large size and speed and nervous disposition. They require a lot of patience and care.

Our hares are raised in a rural but sometimes nosiy environment and are used to dogs barking, trucks, cars, and many other noises from birth and due tend to have a calmer disposition. We have found the bucks seem more sedate than the does, but then again it depends on how much they are handled and what they are exposed to while growing up.


The History of Belgian Hares in the US (and What They're Like as Pets) - pets

Belgian Hare: "The King of the Fancy"

The Belgian Hare is a beautiful, racy, wild looking rabbit. Because of this, most people I've had contact me see them and instantly want to be placed on a list for a hare. They have done no research, they are not aware of the extra care this amazing breed takes, and our conversations are usually short lived when they realize that I am very diligent in screening potential buyers. Belgian Hares are a special breed and they take patience and devotion, I have learned this for myself first hand.

I received my very first trio of Belgian Hares in late May of 2017. While I had done some research about the breed for the couple of years I had been raising rabbits the Belgians always seemed like that one breed I would always have to admire from afar, so nothing fully prepared me for the rollercoaster that would come with the breed. I faced sore hocks, I dealt with eye issues, vet bills, stress, escapes, up and down condition and on top of it all, breeding issues. I was ready to throw in the towel and face the sad reality that I was not going to be a Belgian Hare breeder after all, just a mere collector with some very pretty lawn ornaments. I contacted other long standing Hare breeders who actually opened my eyes to the unfortunate reality that came with raising Belgian Hares. I sat and thought long and hard about whether it was really going to be worth all of my efforts and wondered if I was better off rehoming them as pets. In the end, I decided that the breed was worth it. They were worth all of my hard work and I felt I owed it to them and myself to really learn the breed, to not expect so much from them and to enjoy them as they were, whether they produced offspring or not. After many changes, learning their behaviours and personalities, making adjustments to the way I was doing things and after many, many , failed attempts at breeding, our first two litters of Belgian Hares were born here at Hunters Acres in April of 2018.

Despite their name, the Belgian Hare is not really a hare at all but a domestic breed of rabbit that has been bred to resemble the European wild hare.

Belgian Hares are very intelligent, clever and are said to be one of the smartest rabbit breeds (even learning their name!) . When taught from a young age, they are responsive to handling and training. That said, it is important to insure wherever you choose to purchase a hare from, that they are well socialized and handled. Due to their active nature and alert temperament they can also become easily startled so it's important to work on desensitizing your hare to an assortment of environments and noises. I try and play a radio or music when working around my hares and I spend a lot of time talking to them. I've read quite a few articles claiming how high strung the breed is, but this has not been quite my experience thus far. While they are more active and likely more capable of injuring themselves due to their tendency to be slightly erratic in their movements, I find my hares are relatively laid back and handle stress quite well for the most part.

Due to their larger size (6lbs-9lbs), Belgian Hares do have more specific housing requirements. For one, they do not do well on wire. This is because while hares have relatively long, strong feet they are not well furred. This is one breed where being housed on wire is more likely to cause issues than not. Currently my hares are in all wire cages (deciding on what route we want to take providing them with a better setup) , but are provided with a floor covered with large resting mats to keep them from having physical contact with the wire flooring. This seems to be working well for us but we are hoping to provide a more permanent solid flooring solution in the near future. The housing requirements of hares is important as they need height as well as length. Preferred housing sizes are 2'x4'x2' and closer to 2'x6'x2' for does. I have successfully housed my Belgian Hares outside over winter with adequate shelter and plenty of straw to help insulate and help them keep warm.

Our Hares are fed a high quality 18% hay based pellet . We have tried them on a couple different feeds of varying protein percentage but have found that a measured amount of 18% every day is what seems to help them maintain their condition best. I have found that due to their quicker metabolism, the Belgians do eat a bit more than any other average breed within their size range so it's important to make sure to monitor your Hare's condition and not free feed. We also try and provide our Hares with access to a high quality grass hay of no more than 50% alfalfa content (too much alfalfa is high in calcium and can be hard on adult rabbits) .

To read up on more about the Belgian Hare, please visit any of these links for more information on the history of this wonderful breed:

American Belgian Hare Club:

American Belgian Hare Culture:

Currently listed as 'threatened' by the Livestock Conservancy:


Belgian Hare

History

Belgian Hares unsurprisingly originated in Belgian in the early 18th century. The breed was developed by crossing wild rabbits with domestic rabbits to create a practical meat rabbit. The Belgian hare made its way to England in 1874 where the breed was developed by a Mr Lumb to be more spirited and lively like the English wild rabbit.

By 1887 the UK Belgian Hare speciality club was formed and the breed was growing in popularity particularly in America. In the 1920s the popularity of the breed dwindled. Many tried to breed this rabbit for meat even though physically it was unsuitable. This diluted the breed so it was rare to find a purebred Belgian, perhaps causing the lack of interest.

The Belgian hare is a large rabbit that is slender with long legs. They are a rich chestnut colour with large bright hazel eyes.

Behaviour

The Belgian Hare is an intelligent and energetic breed. They can be startled by noise and movement fairly easily due to their alertness and nervous disposition. This breed isn’t suitable for a novice rabbit owner or for children.

Varieties

The Belgian Hare is red/chestnut with hazel coloured eyes.


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@turkay1-- Really?! I didn't know they were endangered either!

Don't some people eat Belgian hare? I'm pretty sure that I've seen recipes for Belgian hare online. I think that's horrible. I refuse to eat rabbits, deer and ducks. I just can't get myself to do that.

If the Belgian hare is endangered, it should be illegal for people to eat them! candyquilt July 11, 2011

I'm in support of Belgian hare breeders because I came to know that it is now considered to be an endangered species. Having Belgian hares participate in rabbit shows might promote more people to become interested in the type and breed them.

I think that not every breeder is interested in breeding this species because they are know for being a bit panicky. Apparently, they stress out very easily and can have huge reactions to new environments or anything that may be unfamiliar to them. So breeders think that they will be too difficult to deal with.

I've also read that as long as the hares are in a calm environment, they won't have any problems. So I definitely don't think that this is a reason to refuse breeding Belgian hares. They are very graceful animals and it would be a shame if they became extinct. burcinc July 10, 2011

My friend has a pet Belgian hare that is 10 pounds. He still looks very skinny though but my friend said that he has normal weight and might even be considered fat if he keeps gaining.

I didn't understand why she said that but now I know that this is the normal body structure of Belgian hare. I was thinking that he was abnormally thin because of an illness or something. Good to know that it's completely normal! Niemka May 3, 2010

In Germany we have Belgian Hare in the original red-brown color, and in white/RE. In this time we are trying to get accepted the "black and tan" in the German ZDRK-Standard.


Watch the video: German shorthaired pointer and belgian hares (June 2021).