ORIGINS OF THE BELGIAN HARE
By Frank Zaloudek
The Belgian Hare can be traced back to the "leporine" developed in the early part of the 18th century in the Flanders area of eastern Europe by the selective breeding of domestic and wild European rabbits.
Leporines were imported from Belgium and Germany to England in the 1870s by Mr. W. Lumb and his brother-in-law Mr. B. Greaves, importers of small stock from continental Europe. Wilkins (1896) wrote that after their introdiction into England ..."they (were) bred continuosly, but with two and distinct objects - in the one, for size, and the other, ostensibly to develop a rabbit of the form, color and fur of the wild hare. The larger race has been called the 'Patagonian', but is now recognized as the 'Flemish Giant', the other has been named 'Belgian Hare' rabbit." It was explained that the redder colored Leporines resembled the common wild hare of England (lepus Timidus), and a number of adventuresome rabbit aficionados and natural scientists undertook the task of employing selective breeding to make the Leporine look more like lepus Timidus. These early breeders included Mr. Lumb, Dr, Barham, and Dr.J Salter a Physian, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Zoological Socity. Fellow of the Linnaean Societ, an friend of Charles Darwin. Their rabbits were called the "Belgian Hare"-- "Belgian" (to recognize their origin) and "Hare" (to recognize their resemblance to Lepus Timidus which was a true hare). Breeders of the Belgian Hare began to compete in small livestock shows and standards were first written in 1882. The breed was further refined to make the Belgian Hare appear even more like the English wild hare (lepus Timidus), i.e., more racy in shape than the breeders were then producing. This new, more racy, Belgian Hare was described in a 1889 revision of the standard. In addition to the more racy shape, the new standard called for ticking more like the wild hare (more distributed in waves), a bold eye, greater length of limb, and no ticking on the front limbs, ears, or hind feet (however, a small amount of ticking was allowed on the front feet). In 1888, E.M. Hughes of Albany, N.Y. brought the first Belgian Hare to America. Mr. Hughs along with Mr. W.N Richardson of Troy, NY and Mr. G.W. Fenton of Barr, MA promoted and exhibited the Belgian Hare at small stock shows acoss the US and should be given credit for the early popularization of the breed in this country.
Shortly after Mr. Hughes importation of the Belgian Hare from the UK, The breeders in this country formed the "American Belgian Hare Association". Mr W.N. Richardson of Troy, N.Y was named Secretary. However this association lasted not much more than one year. Mr. Crabtree wrote, "Although started in a liberal Spirit, and with the best of intentions, it became disorganized on account of the wide scattering of the membership making it difficult to obtain a quorum at meetings". A second attempt to organize was made in 1897. The "National Belgian Hare Club of America" was formed, with headquarters in Denver, CO and Mr. P.E. Crabtree as secretary. Twelve years after the formation of the National Belgian Hare Club of America and as additional breeds were introduced in the US, a new "all-breed" club, the " National Pet Stock Association" was formed. After several name changes, the National Pet Stock Association became the American Rabbit Breeders Association. As the years past, the National Belgian Hare club of America also passed from existance. In the June of 1972, a group of Belgian Hare breeders gathered together to apply for a specialty club charter from the American Rabbit Breeders Association to replace the defunct National Belgian Hare Club of America. In July of 1972 the charter was granted and our present club, the "American Belgian Hare Club" was established.
The Boom Years
After intoduction into the United States in 1888, the Belgian Hare enjoyed much popularity, and large rabbitries were built for their production. Large numbers of rabbits were imported at fabulous prices. It is recorded that Hares fetched prices of $500 to $1000 each (in pre-1900 Dollars!). This was called "the Belgian Hare boom." Remember, this was at a time when labor earned 10 to 15 cents per hour.
Mr. C. H. Lane reported that a center of Belgian Hare popularity existed in Los Angeles area where the weather was particularly advantageous to the propagation of the hare. In 1898, there were no less than 600 rabbitries there carrying from 75 to more than a 1000 head of stock each. He further stated that in 1900, over 60,000 Belgian Hares were being raised in Southern California alone and numbers were on the increase!
In 1900, the National Belgian Hare Club of America held its first Exposition, which was reputedly the first and certainly the largest exposition seen up to that time confined to only one breed of rabbit. The National Belgian Hare of America club promulgated Standards of Excellence for TWO varieties , one for the "Standard" (fancy) Belgian Hare and one for the "Heavy Weight" (commercial) Belgian Hare. Today, the American Rabbit Breeders Association recognizes only a "fancy" variety in their "Standards of Perfection."
The End of the Boom
Inevidably, supply caught up with demand and the Belgian Hare Boom was over. James Blyth in his article "King of the Fancy" in the October, 1973 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Magagine, had some addional insight into the end of the "boom". He wrote, "Until about 1917 Belgians led in entries. When the Hares were judged, the show was about over. The Hares were hurt when they came out with a standard for the heavyweight Belgian, Trying to make a meat rabbit out of this fine racy animal certainly was not for the good of the race horse of the rabbit family. At this time the Hare began to lose its place in popularity. Each breed has its place, and when you strive for meat-type in a fancy rabbit, you have lost much of that alert and fine, clean-cut appearance."
Today, Belgian Hare continues to be one of the less popular rabbits in America, because, in part, they are difficult to breed successfully. Three centuries of various degrees of line breeding have diminished their hybrid vigor, and, today, too few breeders pursuing too few bloodlines have further exacerbated the situation. Raising Belgian Hares involves a lot of hard work, expert animal husbandry practices, and a lot of luck!