The European hare, Lepus europaeus, is a well known sight across the open fields of the UK. With the mating season just beginning and running from January all the way until August we are likely to see this usually shy and nocturnal lagomorph much more frequently.
The mating behaviour of these hares is complex. Females known as does will box with their front limbs to ward off unwanted males when they are not ready to mate. Males will also display this boxing behaviour to determine dominance but more often than not it is the females.
Although females fall pregnant during the whole breeding season they are most fertile during the middle. Most pregnancies in the early months consist of only one foetus and are usually miscarried. The peak of the season is during March when pregnancies consist of three or more foetuses and are more likely to reach full term. During march the vicious boxing reaches a climax and due to the nights shortening can be seen regularly throughout the day hence the phrase ‘March Madness’ commonly associated with hares.
The females are only fertile every six weeks for a few hours a day for several days. Because of this narrow window of opportunity the males compete intensively. When a female is ready to mate she will encourage prospective suitors to chase her. As opposed to their rabbit cousins who prefer hiding as a predator avoidance tactic hares are built for running and can reach staggering speeds of 72 kph. Less fit males will fall behind during the chase and be forced to stop due to exhaustion. The last male standing who is arguably the fittest and therefore the most promising in terms of genes will finally be allowed to mate with the female.
After about a month the female will give birth in a form – a shallow surface depression used by hares rather than a burrow. The European hare performs absentee parentism; there is little or no paternal care and only minimal maternal care. The leverets (young of hares) disperse from their mother into separate hiding locations only 3 days after birth. For several weeks the litter will regroup at sunset at their birthplace for a brief period of suckling before returning to their separate forms.
The relatively short gestation period and minimal parental care allows females to have numerous litters throughout one breeding season. From May onwards testosterone levels in males start to fall and consequently sexual behaviour is demonstrated less eventually dwindling to a close at the beginning of August.
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