the brown hare: old big-bum, furze cat

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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.

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Fallow Deer family

A few nights ago, I spotted a family group of deer on the roadside as I drove to Daylesford.  There was a female deer, a male with small horns, and a young deer. The adults crossed the road towards Leitches Creek Bushland Reserve while the young deer stared at me with some confusion. I followed my kangaroo protocol – turn high beams off, slow down or stop (if safe to do so) and the young one joined his family soon enough.

Deer were introduced to Australia as game animals with much enthusiasm by the Acclimitisation Societies of the 19th Century. There are several species in Australia which are naturalised – that is, they have self-sustaining populations in our forests and farmlands.

The Grampians is the home of the mighty Red Deer – those huge, impressive deer of Scottish wildlife documentaries. Eastern Victoria and particularly East Gippsland is the home of the Sambar, another massive species of deer. In the Otways and here in the Wombat Forest, we have Fallow Deer and, to a lesser extent, Sambar. Coastal areas such as Wilsons Promontary and the Gippsland Lakes have Hog Deer.

fallow-deer-female without spots

This is a female Fallow Deer without spots (pixabay.com)

Fallow Deer are smaller than Red Deer or Sambar – the males weigh up to 90 kg, while a Sambar male can be up to 250kg! Like most deer, males are larger than females, with females being about half the weight of males.

Fallow Deer are your classic spotty deer – a rusty, reddish-brown colour with white spots, blending to a white underbelly and legs. A black stripe runs along the back and extends onto the tail. Some deer do not have spots, and some are very dark – and quite a few deer are white. A farmer in Muckleford has a group of deer living on and around his farm, with a big all-white stag!

The deer we see wild locally are from deer farms that have gone out of business, and then the owners have set them free into the nearby bush.  Fallow deer can’t survive in purely native habitats such as huge stretches of forest. They rely on a patchwork pattern; a modified landscape of paddocks with introduced grasses, farms and farmlets and patches of open forest or woodland.

During Winter, Spring and early summer, there is some degree of segregation between the sexes – males form small groups and roam across their home ranges, while the females, yearlings of both sexes and juveniles remain more sedentary.

With this in mind, the family I spotted the other night may have been mum, big brother and a young one. This little group will stick together until late Summer/ Autumn, when the rut begins.  The males return to their favourite rutting territories, and make grunting calls, paw the ground, spread their urine and scent, and flay bushes and tree trunks with their antlers. The females visit the males and mate.

About seven months later a little fawn is born. The mother and fawn pretty much keep to themselves until the fawn is about a month old, and then they rejoin the local herd.

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–Wonderful male Fallow Deer, by Jiri Nederost

Most of the information I could find about Fallow Deer was about their value and qualities as a game animal. Deer hunting is hugely popular and growing each year – some 60,000 deer were killed by hunters last year.  I have to admit I am in two minds about this! Wherever there are large herds of deer the native plant species are diminished in number, orchids and wildflowers destroyed, and the wattles browsed to such an extent that small birds lose their cover for feeding and nesting.

Fallow Deer predators are listed as wolves, cougars, lynx, bears, mountain cougars, coyotes and bobcats – no wonder they are doing so well in Australia! From what I can see from the Australian Deer Association, deer hunting requires a lot of patience and skill, and precision, as the deer are so wary and intelligent. As hunting goes, it seems fairer than duck shooting, or kangaroo hunting – both of which are horribly cruel and very unfair.

Hunting aside,  my heart sings whenever I see our local Fallow Deer – they are so pretty and gentle! I have Dutch and Irish heritage, so I think some deep, ancestral part of me really loves these animals.

For this year’s Words in Winter, I will be giving a  talk : “Hepburn Nature Diary: seven years and counting”, a behind the scenes look at my nature stories. Please come and say hello! Saturday, August 6, 6:30 – 7:20 at the Words in Winter Hub, 81 Vincent Street, Daylesford.

Male Fallow Deer picture:  via Wikimedia Commons and http://www.hvozd.eu/

For some information on ecology of Fallow Deer in Australia ( Tasmania) rather than hunting information, this paper is interesting Fallow-Deer-Species-Profile Tasmania