the brown hare: old big-bum, furze cat

In recent weeks there has been a young hare feeding on grasses just outside our kitchen window. A very young hare is known as a leveret, this fellow or young lady looks to be a subadult. His golden eyes are large and oval and positioned so that he can see danger from almost all directions, like an antelope. The ears are massive, moving independently, this way and that, picking up the faintest sounds.

young hare by Mary Hartney
A very young leveret, photographed by Mary Hartney.

We have always had hares here on our bush block – I have seen them foraging like our young hare, or running along the dirt road very early in the morning. Once we found a very young leveret, huddled in the rain, with a horrific eye injury filled with tiny maggots. We took it to the wildlife shelter. It looked like a bird of prey had attempted to carry it away by the head, but then dropped it. The little sweetie was mercifully euthanised.

There is only one kind of hare in Australia – the Brown Hare, Lepus europeaus. Their natural range is Europe and Russia, and even Siberia.  The Acclimitisation Society of Victoria made multiple attempts to establish populations of Brown Hares in Victoria, distributing hares to ‘landed gentry” in 1867. By 1900, hares were numerous in Victoria and New South Wales, and declared agricultural pests.

So what are the differences between a hare and a rabbit? The hare is tall and rangy, with very long ears and long muscular hind legs that give the hare a curious lolloping gait. Rabbits have a more compact form, with shorter ears and shorter legs. The average adult weight of a hare is 3.3 – 3.7 kgs, and a rabbit 1.2 – 2kgs. The hare is a big muscular marathon runner, and rabbit a fluffy sprinter.

Rabbits are colonial and live in burrows, often with multiple entrances – to escape predators, the rabbit must sprint to its burrow. The hare, on the other hand, has no burrow. It uses a scrape or shallow depression on the ground known as a form to rest in when not feeding or engaging in social activity. And if a predator flushes a hare from its form, its speed and endurance is the thing that will save it from its main predator, the red fox.

Young rabbits, known as kits, are born furless with their eyes closed.  Young hares or leverets are born furred with eyes wide open and ready to run or hide.

Rabbits feed on grasses and herbs, whereas a hare’s diet is much broader, including leaves, bark, fruit, fungi. Hares can live in a wider variety of habitats than rabbits, and cause ecologists no end of frustration for their habit of eating endangered orchids in grasslands and woodlands.

Brown hare wikimedia image
Look at the large and powerful hind legs! From Wikimedia

There are a several spears of Hyacinth orchid coming up on the block ready for flowering in January. The top has already been nipped off one – our local hares perhaps? Browsing by hares and rabbits leaves a distinctive 45 degree angle on the stems. This is due to the shape of their teeth, which is a pair of ever-growing gnawing teeth, with peg teeth behind these.

To extract the most nutrients possible form their diet, lagomorphs (hares, rabbits and pikas) produce special soft faeces at night known as cecotropes. These droppings are eaten directly from the anus and quite unlike the hard pellets produced during the day.

Hares can breed at eight months of age – so our young hare could almost be ready to start a family. When a female is almost, but not quite, ready to breed, a male hare will follow her very closely for days. Very little is known about the breeding season of hares in Australia – but in Europe, many long term studies have revealed the secret lives of hares. They breed at a slower rate than rabbits, with litters of just 1 – 4 leverets.

The hare features heavily in mythic stories in their native range – including ancient Egypt. In the Middle English poem The names of the hare the old names are a delight to read: old big-bum, hare-ling, frisky one, fast traveler, way-beater, nibbler, furze cat, stag of the stubble, cat of the wood, friendless one, fellow in the dew, lurker, skulker and finally the stag with the leathery horns.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you the lovely story about hares, Tanya. Cheers Kate

    On Sat, 15 Dec 2018 10:12 am From forest to forest wrote:

    > Tanya Loos posted: “In recent weeks there has been a young hare feeding on > grasses just outside our kitchen window. A very young hare is known as a > leveret, this fellow or young lady looks to be a subadult. His golden eyes > are large and oval and positioned so that he can see” >

  2. A lovely post as usual, Tanya. You may be interested in a book I’ve just read by a British nature writer – John Lewis-Sempel, The Running Hare. It is the story of how as a farmer he transforms a field while writing about the history of Britain’s fields, their flora and fauna, and their destruction by agribusiness.

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