Release of Casualty Rabbits & Hares (Wildlife Casualty Management)

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Wildlife Casualty Release which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species: Lepus europaeus - Brown hare, Lepus timidus - Mountain hare, Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit.

These species are within the family Leporidae.


  • No pre-release preparation is required if these animals have been in care for a short period of time.

  • It may be appropriate to vaccinate rabbits against Myxomatosis prior to release.(V.w26)

Release assessment/criteria:

  • Released mammals:

    • Must be able to recognise, catch, manipulate, consume and digest their natural diet.
    • Must be capable of normal locomotion (movement) and have sufficient fitness for sustained activity.
    • Must have adequate sensory ability (sight, smell, hearing, touch)
    • Must be of an appropriate weight for the age, sex, and time of year for the species. 
    • Must have a satisfactory hair coat.
    • Must show appropriate wariness of humans and domestic animals.
    • (P19.1.w10, P24.233.w11, J35.147.w1, D27)
  • Appropriate health checks should be carried out prior to release. A careful assessment (risk analysis) must be made as to the risks of released animals introducing novel pathogens (disease agents) into the wild population/environment.
    • These pathogens may have been acquired from domestic animals, other wildlife casualties or humans whilst the animal was in captivity.
    • The health checks should be designed to minimise the risk that pathogens posing a threat to wild populations of this or other species will be introduced into the environment when the animal is released.
    • (V.w5, V.w6, P28.2000.w1, J15.20.w3)

Selecting a release site:

Lepus europaeus - Brown hare, Lepus timidus - Mountain hare

  • Pasture with dense hedgerows or other cover nearby, away from roads and railways. (B224)
  • The cooperation and approval of the landowner should be sought. (B224)

Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit

  • Pasture with dense hedgerows or other cover nearby, away from main roads and railways. (B224)
  • Choose an area with short grassland and some cover such as scrub, boulders, dry stone walls (e.g. hedgerows, railway embankment, downland, duneland). (D25)

Timing of release:

  • Release as soon as possible to minimise stress associated with captivity..(B199, B224)
  • These mainly nocturnal species should be released in the evening.
  • Release during a period of fine weather if possible.

Type of release:

  • Hard release is generally suitable for adults of these species.
  • Note: rabbits rely on the presence of burrows for protection from predators. Release in the absence of such burrows may considerably increase the chance of the animal being caught by a predator in the short term.
  • Soft release:
    • Back-up feeding may be appropriate after release of hand-reared rabbits and leverets or individuals which have been in care for prolonged periods.
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Soft release is particularly important for hand reared animals, particularly of species which need to learn about their surroundings (e.g. food sources) and/or learn survival skills such as hunting.
  • Soft release is also suitable for animals which have been in care for prolonged periods.
  • Soft release may compensate for difficulties of newly released animals finding food and shelter, particularly in a new environment and/or at a time of reduced physical fitness/stamina.
  • Hard release is most appropriate for animals which have been held in captivity for only a short time, for adult animals and for animals being released back into their own territory.
  • The individual animal must, at the the time of release, be healthy, have a reasonable level of fitness and be able to fend for itself in the wild.
  • Nocturnal species should be released at night.
  • Release should preferably take place during a period of fine weather.
  • Hares are welcomed by many farmers.(B151)
  • It may be appropriate to vaccinate rabbits against Myxomatosis prior to release. (V.w26)
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Rabbits should not be released in an area with a marked Myxomatosis problem.
  • Rabbits should not be released where rabbit hunting is known to take place.
    • Release sites without farming interests (particularly arable farming) are preferred for releasing rabbits, since rabbit control is commonly practised for crop protection. (B151, B199, V.w26)
  • Hares should not be released where hare-coursing is known to take place.
  • Hard release is least appropriate for juveniles which have been hand reared, particularly species for which learning about their environment and/or social skills are important.
  • Hard release may also be inappropriate for adults which have been maintained in captivity for prolonged periods and/or are being released at a site distant from their original location.
  • Released animals may be at risk of contracting disease if there is an ongoing disease problem in the wild population at the time of release.
  • The wild population may be at risk from novel pathogens (disease agents) carried by a rehabilitated animal. These pathogens may pose the greatest threat to free-ranging populations if the animal is to be released at a site distant from its original location therefore increasing the likelihood of spread of disease. It is important to remember that the casualty wild animal may have acquired disease from domestic animals, other wildlife casualties or humans whilst in captivity. 
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Release of these animals is not difficult. Knowledge of the natural history of the species concerned is required for correct decision making regarding a suitable release site.
Cost/ Availability
  • Release of these animals requires little cost other than the time of transporting the rabbit or hare to the release site.
  • Costs of appropriate health screening.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • The potential risks to the individual being released and to the wild population into which it is being released (also to domestic animals) must be considered before release is undertaken.
  • The potential risk to humans and pets from habituated/tame individuals must be considered.
  • An offence may be committed under Section 1 of the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 if a released rehabilitated animal does not have a reasonable chance of survival (i.e. a chance similar to its non-rehabilitated peers).
    • This may include release at an unsuitable site, in the wrong territory, unfit, not having learned to hunt, at the wrong time of year etc.
  • (J35.147.w1, B156.21.w21, B223, W5.Jan01)
  • It would appear that, under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932, it is an offence to release rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus - European rabbit) or to allow them to escape into the wild. (J35.147.w1, B223)
  • It would also appear to be an offence to release a rabbit with signs of Myxomatosis where other rabbits may become infected under the Pests Act 1954.
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman

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