Mad March Hares
Originally published 10 March 2015.
The European hare, Lepus Europaeus, is a wonderful mammal, brought over from Asia in Iron Age times. In the breeding season they create quite the wildlife spectacle when hare boxing begins and this behaviour peaks during March, giving them the popular title of Mad March Hares.
Hares are widespread in Britain and they tend to favour open countryside, with patches of tall vegetation- this makes them fairly easy to spot, especially in the earlier months of the year, before grass and other vegetation grows too high. They can be told apart from common rabbits as they are bigger and have longer, black tipped ears. They also have longer limbs and can run much faster, reaching speeds of up to 43 miles an hour. The females- known as does, are generally bigger than the males- known as bucks, with females reaching up to 3.7kg in weight and males only reaching 3.3kg in weight.
Hares also have a different lifestyle to rabbits, they do not live in burrows, instead they choose to rest in shallow depressions known as ‘forms’ and they move around regularly, making new forms as they move. Forms are made by the hare scraping away at the vegetation and lying on the bare ground. They lie very still, with their ears pulled back and this is where they choose to rest. This behaviour of lying still, close to the ground is also one of their defence mechanisms. They lie still in the face of predation and choose only to run at the last second, using their incredible speed to help them escape. They usually save their highest speeds for this moment and the rest of the time move around at a much slower speed.
It is a fantastic sight when you see a hare sprinting across an open field and it is a brilliant spectacle when you see hares boxing. They engage in this peculiar behaviour during the breeding season, which runs from late January until early August, peaking in March and April. The boxing occurs mainly between males and unreceptive females- the female is warning off the male by rearing up onto her hind legs and lashing out with her front legs, often also kicking out with her feet. Unreceptive females will often have to box with multiple males as they compete for her attention.
â€” Madeleine Berry (@madsgberry) March 1, 2015
During the breeding season, females are on a six week cycle, being receptive once every six weeks for only a few hours of one day. During this time, she will allow copulation with the ‘fittest’ male present, usually tested by a chase across open land. After copulation, the gestation period lasts for approximately 42 days and the hare gives birth to multiple young, known as leverates, with usually two to four leverates per litter. A female hare can have up to three or four litters a year. Litters are born in ‘birthing’ forms, usually lined with fur plucked from the mothers coat and after birth, the leverates are moved to individual nearby forms and left by the mother. For the first four weeks, the doe will feed the young in the evenings but otherwise leaves them. This is another defence mechanism whilst the leverates are at their most vulnerable stage of life- by leaving them separated they are at a lower risk of being detected by predators.
The European hare is classed as a species of least concern on the ICUN red list but numbers have been declining in recent years due to the growth in agriculture and a change in the way farms are run. Farming 100 years ago used to be mainly mixed crops, allowing a food source for hares year round. Compared to present times, many farms now produce one type of crop, such as cereals and this creates a lull in the food source for a few months each year. Also livestock farms have become more abundant and the number of farms in general, along with other development has increased, reducing the amount of natural space for this species, thus reducing their natural food sources. Increased fox populations also have an impact on hare numbers as the fox is one of the main predators of leverates.
Despite this reduction in habitat and food source, the hare is still abundant in many places in Britain and we will be able to enjoy the spectacle of the Mad March Hares for many years to come.
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