walkhighlands

Brown Hares – My Companion Animals

I’ve had my trail camera out at home recently. Now it’s getting colder, I’ve been investigating what creatures are milling about outside the house, in search of warmth or food. Last winter there were various rodents and shrews sneaking under the porch door, so I rather expected to see something similar this time. Maybe a red squirrel foraging nearby. Tawny owls on the fence posts. Or, given they have left conspicuous scat on the road, pine martens.

But no. After the first night, I looked through the new videos and they all showed one of two brown hares, nibbling grass or stretching. The next night, there were more triggers but again, all I got was brown hares. Same the next night. And the next. And the next. 

Hare having a stretch on the trailcam

I was initially disappointed not to get anything else but, really, I can’t ever be disappointed with brown hares themselves because…..I absolutely adore them! 

They’re certainly the mammal I see most frequently, but familiarity doesn’t foster any kind of complacency. Indeed they’re so ubiquitous in my life and around my home, that they feel more like my companion animals. 

It’s quite a turnaround, given I went the vast majority of my life without ever seeing a brown hare. For 35 years I led a largely urban existence in the West Midlands, Portsmouth and Edinburgh. On trips into the countryside we’d see rabbits of course. They were everywhere. 

Mountain hares? Yep. They were a fairly common sight in the hills once I moved to Scotland. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a brown hare until I moved to the Lomond Hills in 2010. I certainly didn’t see one up close until then.

Not long after moving to Fife, I spotted one casually and comfortably roaming around the garden, nibbling at the grass. The first thing that struck me, and indeed it still strikes me now, was how large this brown hare was.

Including the head, brown hares are typically 40- 60cm long and weigh up to 5kg, but the largest hares can be as long as 70cm. They’re about twice the weight of a wild rabbit, which measures around 30-40cm in length.

The next thing I noticed, was that while both rabbits and hares have the powerful hind legs / long ears / twitching nose thing going on, hares actually look quite different.

Adult hare, suckling three leverets on my driveway! An extraordinary thing to see from your kitchen window!!

Rabbits are greyish brown, compact in build, with a white ball of a tail. Brown hares are light brown, often with a reddish tint, and a pale belly. Relative to their bodies, a brown hare’s legs look longer than a rabbit’s, and as a result hares are noticeably leaner and lankier. Brown hares also have a white tail, but it is black on its uppermost side.

Yes, both species have the distinctive long ears, but brown hare ears are REALLY long – about twice the length of their heads, with black tips. But it’s the eyes that are the most telling difference.

Rabbit eyes are dark. At a distance, they appear black and glassy, almost featureless, like those you might get on a cuddly toy. Brown hares however, have the most beautiful amber-coloured eyes, and I have to admit that this attribute, more than anything else, is why I feel a strong emotional connection to the hare. They are remarkably expressive. 

Their eyes are big too, and this gives brown hares a wide-eyed, almost startled ‘thousand-yard’ stare. But when the hares in my garden are comfortable in their surroundings, calmly nibbling on plants, their eyelids close a tad and, weirdly, I think this gives them an appearance of aloofness. As I say, they’re expressive!

The movement of the two species differs too. When rabbits run, their bellies are closer to the ground and there is more of a see-saw motion in their bodies as they run. Brown hares, with their gangly limbs, have less of a hop and more of a gallop when you see them running across open fields. And boy, how they run. Up to 45mph!

The other glaring difference between rabbits and brown hares is social structure. Rabbits of course, are social animals who live in large groups. But while there are times of the year when you’ll see brown hares congregating together (courtship, for example), generally speaking they live solitary lives. 

Rabbits look and behave very differently to hares

I have no idea how many individual hares have frequented my garden in the subsequent 13 years. They live for only a few years in the wild but can be prolific breeders, so there’s likely a high number of them milling about. They do, however, tend to be creatures of habit, and so I’m fairly certain I see the same individuals again and again. Hence the hare ‘road’ becoming an annual feature in the garden, connecting the same hole in the fence with the driveway, where the grass gets repeatedly trodden down by furry feet. And each year, their favoured spots in the garden become apparent.

Hares don’t live underground, instead they rest up in shallow depressions in grass or soil, called ‘forms’. As the summer wears on, I usually start to notice a few obviously compacted patches within the long grass. Sometimes, when I put my hand down on the ground, the forms are very noticeably warm, as the owner has only recently got up and left. 

Suffice to say, I’ve had more hare encounters than I can count. And because the local brown hares are fairly safe in my garden, more often than not they linger in the open, in plain sight of the kitchen window. I have, therefore, seen just about every hare behaviour there is.

Browsing is the most common activity, even though brown hares do much of their dining at night. I can while away an hour or so just watching a hare wander about, nibbling on the clover and the daisies. But they’re also well-kept, grooming themselves regularly to stay clean. It’s a wonderfully intimate thing to see, as it’s done with such care and precision.

They start off like hamsters or mice, washing their faces with their paws, but eventually reach behind their head and pull each ear forward to clean them in turn. They’ll stretch their hind legs out in front of them, one at a time, and spread their digits apart to clean their paws, a bit like a cat. And then, after the grooming is complete, they often pause, look into the distance, and then briefly raise up on their hind legs so they can shake their front paws dry. It’s adorable.

As they’re largely nocturnal creatures, sleeping during the day is a common activity too. I’ve noticed they tend to snooze with a tiny gap open in their eyelids, watching for danger. I’ve watched as they then settle down for a nap, fidgeting to get comfortable, before their muscles relax and they slump to one side.

Courtship, brown hare style. I love the top photo – it was snapped on a dim evening and looks rather dreamlike

Those springtime congregations, however, when courtship is underway, have proved more elusive. I’ve only seen them a couple of times – at its best, a group of eight hares chasing one another around the adjacent field. 

I’d be lying though, if I said the hares weren’t occasionally inconvenient. When we moved to Fife, I sowed a wildflower seed mix the first autumn, and the subsequent summer it formed a nice colourful patch of oxeye daisy, red campion and red clover. It started as only a few square metres, but every autumn I’d cut the lawn, roll the wildflower hay over the garden, and then lift the cuttings in an attempt to spread the seeds and reduce the nutrient input. Quite quickly the wildflower patch spread, spearheaded by the oxeye daisies and red campion. The red clover, which I was most keen to establish due to its value for insects, took much longer to get going, chiefly because it was very obviously the absolute favourite of the local hares.

Oi! That’s my clover!

They loved the leaves, but would also bite the red flower heads clean off, which was annoying as there were never many heads coming into flower. Each one was precious, so at first I was annoyed that the hares were thwarting the clover’s best efforts. But over time, I came to be thankful that the clover was keeping the hares in my garden for longer. And because the clover was at the garden edge, closest to the kitchen window, it meant I always had the best view of the hares as they filled themselves up. Despite this, the red clover has somehow managed to get away and now, along with carpets of white clover, offers hares a veritable banquet on which to dine, right outside the window.

Inconvenience also impacts upon my daily routines. I’ve written about this elsewhere on Walkhighlands, but when I came downstairs one morning to find a hare asleep outside the front door, I couldn’t bare to disturb it. So I stayed indoors until it woke up and moved away, which meant I cancelled whatever outdoors plans I had that morning. I’m such a considerate neighbour!

As you can see, my home has been the most remarkable brown hare hide, allowing me to watch their lives from the comfort of my own windows. But the whole brown hare experience was taken to an entirely new level when leverets started appearing in the garden.

‘Leveret’ is the word used to describe young hares, from birth up to one year old. It’s of French origin, similar to the modern French word for hare, lievre, and to the old Norman word levrete

Whatever you call them, wee leverets are cuteness beyond description. Fluffier than the adults, often with a white spot on their foreheads, and prone to spontaneous excitable hopping.

For the first few years I would occasionally happen upon single leverets unexpectedly, in strange places. Underneath tables. In a pile of bricks. Behind car wheels. That last one was a bit of a worry, and for the longest while I would check behind all the wheels before I drove off. But in every encounter the wee fluffballs would just sit there when they’d been discovered, absolutely still, body flattened and their eyes fixed on me.

Unlike rabbits, who benefit from their communal early-warning system and can bolt underground in an emergency, the solitary brown hares must watch out for themselves, above ground. 

If hares get caught unawares, without an obvious escape route, they will remain in situ, crouch as low as they can go, and press their ears into their backs. They’re experts at this, and will only bolt at the very last moment of approaching danger so as not to draw attention to themselves. This means I’ve had the wits scared out of me a few times in the garden. I dare say something similar has happened to the hillwalkers among you, when a mountain hare has burst from beneath your feet.

Looks like I’m stuck indoors for the morning

But my impression is that while the leverets know to keep very still, they don’t have as strong an urge to run as the adults do. As a result, I’ve often found myself face to face, just a metre away, at which point I slowly back off and leave them be. This was all quite common, but I never really devoted much thought to where the leverets came from or where they resided.

Then, in May 2016, I noticed two leverets hanging around the garden. They’d spend the day separated, but as dusk descended they’d gather together, find a protected spot close to the house, wash one another for a bit, and then just snuggle up.

Two days later, when I went into the kitchen around 8pm to make cuppa, I noticed a dark blob on the driveway. I turned on the outside light, and saw it was an adult hare with its back to me. It was nibbling at something on the ground, but there was no grass there to nibble. A little bit later I noticed some tiny legs sticking out from underneath her front legs. Leverets! And they were feeding from her!

The adult female suckled her young for a minute or so, before suddenly running off, leaving the tiny leverets spreadeagled, and surprised, on the driveway. 10 seconds later they bounded off in different directions. I’d never, ever, seen anything like it.

“What a rare privilege”, I thought. “I can’t imagine many people get to see that. And I’ll probably never see it again.”

A one off, surely? Nope. The next night, the exact same thing happened, only this time it all happened a bit closer to the kitchen window, and the adult hare was facing the house. Again, a munute or two of suckling, and then she ran off, leaving the leverets behind.

I deduced it was a clockwork operation, so around 8pm I’d sit at the window and wait. And every night it was the same. Leverets sitting patiently, waiting. Then she’d just turn up from stage left. The leverets would run to greet her. She’d nuzzle them as they suckled. And then she’d leave. Six consecutive nights in all. I was astonished.

The birth and raising of young is another way in which brown hares differ substantially from rabbits. Rabbits are born underground, furless and blind, and it’s around three weeks before they come above ground. Conversely, brown hare leverets are born above ground, in a form, but they are born as miniature versions of adults – with fur, eyes open, and are quickly mobile.

Leverets are left completely to their own devices thereafter, with the mum returning just once per day, to the same general location, in order to feed them. After 3 or 4 weeks they’re fully weaned and independent.

Hare sightings were few and far between in 2017, and I didn’t see any hares at all in the garden in 2018, which was very strange. But then, in July 2019, quite out the blue, I glanced out the window and there, again, was an adult hare suckling two leverets. I maintained a nightly watch, and this time got to witness this happening on seven consecutive nights.

“Maybe if I crouch down, he won’t see me”

2020, the lockdown year, and the same happened again. This time for eight consecutive nights. But this time with THREE leverets! Six furry legs sticking out from underneath her. It didn’t matter that by now I’d seen this extraordinary sight more times than I could count, I still sat there in the gloom, every single night, in anticipation of getting to see it again.

It was an extraordinarily intimate thing to witness, and I was transfixed by her vigilance. The way her ears constantly moved, alert to danger. But I just loved how hyper the wee leverets always were after she’d left. Like they’d been filled with rocket fuel.

I made a short film with the footage I’d captured, and other people must have been similarly captivated, because it quickly got over 1 million views on YouTube, and even found its way onto Springwatch.

A lot of people, commenting on the footage, asserted that my home must have great vibes for hares, and that I must be offering a safe and welcoming environment. I’ve always let the garden grow fairly wild, planting wildflower seed and then cutting & lifting the grass a couple of times a year. So yes, it is no doubt attractive with good cover and good food.

As you can imagine, when the time came to move away from the Lomonds to Mar Lodge, I was sad to be leaving the hare hide behind, and thought maybe I’d lose something that had become a big part of my daily life. But I needn’t have worried, because I often open the front door in the morning now, to go to work, only to find a hare running away because it’s been kipping on my front step! I’ve also been fortunate to see two hares ‘boxing’ right in front of the house.

Thankfully, these beautiful, intriguing creatures remain close companions outside my new home, which seems to be equally appealing to them as my old one.

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