This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The Common Hare (Lepus timidus), Fig. 62, is tawny red on the back and sides, and white on the belly. The ears are very long and tipped with black; the eyes are very large and prominent. The length of the animal is about 2 ft., and when full grown it weighs 6 to 8 lb. It is always lean, and from the form of its legs, runs swifter up hill than on level ground. It runs by a kind of leaping pace, and in walking uses the hind feet as far as the heel. It is hunted both for the sport and its flesh. When hunted with greyhounds, the amusement is called coursing. Beagles are also used for the same purpose, but they do not pursue and capture the hare by sight and speed, like the greyhound, but by scent, patiently following its track, until the wearied animal is no longer capable of escaping. The voice of the hare is never heard but when it is seized or wounded. At such times it utters a sharp, loud cry. The flesh of the hare, forbidden to be eaten by the Jews and ancient Britons, was held in great esteem by the Romans, and is now much prized for its peculiar flavour, though it is very dark in colour, dry, and devoid of fat.
The hare breeds three or four times a year. The female goes with young about a month, generally producing two to four at a litter. The eyes of the young hares, called leverets, are open at birth, and they possess the gifts of hearing and speed from birth. The dam suckles them about twenty days, after which they leave her, and procure their own food. The leveret (a hare of the first year) as well as the adult hare, makes a sort of nest among grasses both in coverts and in the open where sufficiently protective, and in this, called a "form," lies crouched to the ground with the ears laid along the back, and trusting to its concealment will often remain quiet until the foot of an intruder almost touches it. The hare is short lived, never attaining more than seven or eight years.
The common hare lives entirely on vegetable food. Hiding by day in coverts or places affording the needful growth of herbage for "forms" and seclusion, the hares come out in the afternoon, evening and at night, according to circumstances, to exercise, forage, and feed. They roam afar through the fields, and where numerous cut and clear away large open spaces to allow them more room for play, and in the large amount of sustenance before them they bite down and wantonly destroy more than they can possibly consume. No crop escapes their ravages, hardly any plant in forest, field, or garden is free from their attacks.
Hares commit great havoc amongst forest trees, especially in the winter months and in frosty weather when food is scarce; then they will peel off the bark of young trees of stake or even pole thickness of stem, exhibiting preference for ash, aspen, beech, elm, hornbeam, maple, oak, and sycamore. Conifers generally attract hares in less degree than broad-leaved trees, in particular Scots and Austrian pines and spruce, Corsican pine being rarely attacked. But in comparatively unwooded tracts, like many of the English, Welsh and Scottish moors, it is often appalling to see the damage inflicted on larch, pines, and spruce, during hard winters, in young plantations, as the hares flock from the neighbouring hill-districts and moors in such numbers as to render afforestation practically impossible without wire-netting protection. On the residential portions of estates and in ornamental coverts and parks, wherever they have marked opportunities of choice, hares single out the papilionaceous species of trees, such as the thorn acacia (Robinia pseudacacia), honey locust (Gleditschia triacanthos), and even the assumed poisonous Scots and common Laburnums (L. alpinum and L. vulgare), for gnawing and stripping off the bark of the stems.
Hares also nip off, apparently for mere mischief, the shoots in woods and plantations, and those of shrubs and trees in nurseries, shrubberies and gardens, thus checking their growth, so that they never attain their proper shape and size, forest trees being ruined as regards producing timber. In winter time, during severe frost and the ground snow-covered, hares nibble and devour the young growths of conifers, broad-leaved trees and shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen, within their reach, always showing preference for the papilionaceous gorse (Ulex europaeus), particularly in ornamental coverts the double gorse (Ulex europaeus, flore plena) and common broom (Cytisus scoparius), these and heather (Calluna vulgaris) being browsed down to the snow-line. Probably the presence of gorse, tufts of coarse grasses, with brakes here and there of bracken (Pteris aquilina) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus) affording shelter and dry "forms," with a look-out on considerable breadths and lengths of velvety lawn producing tender blades of grass and rich leguminous herbage, culminating on wide tracts of heather, accounts for the gathering of hares to moorsides in the autumn, whence they make nightly incursions to the moor-edge farms for feeding on the outstanding crops.
Fig. 62. - The Common Hare.
On agricultural crops hares make persistent onslaughts. Wheat and rye, oats and barley suffer from the time of the appearance of the young and tender blade above ground to that of harvest. They nip off the young shoots of cereals, inducing a stunted, much-branched habit, bearing feeble "ears" and almost worthless grain, whilst thus made to arrive later at maturity and militating against the general harvest both in respect of time and value of crop. When the cereals are advanced in growth, hares bite off the culms at the joints for obtaining the sugary matter found there, and in this way often make path-like openings in standing corn of 2 ft. or more breadth, while there and abutting on the covert a considerable extent of the ground occupied (or should be) by the corn is made to have the appearance of stubble. Hares roam afar through fields and cut and clear away more or less large open spaces in corn crops, weakening and stunting the plants, thus insuring free access and a succession of tender growths for browsing, a matter of consequence to them in dry seasons, when their destructiveness is most pronounced and ruinous to farmers.
Carrots and mangolds are much relished by hares when the plant is young, and right away to maturity "tit-bits" are nibbled off the plants, the portions of the fleshy roots above ground being bitten and eaten; and as attention is given to numerous plants, the havoc, aided by rain and frost, involves a corresponding proportion of the crop, sometimes from damage in the field and non-keeping in store, resulting in half, or even the whole, spoiling. Turnips and swedes suffer in the bulbs from hares nibbling small pieces from numerous "roots," resulting in great decay and corresponding loss. Winter carrots, and above all winter tares, with the ever attractive parsley, have little chance of succeeding where hares abound, it being almost hopeless trying to raise a crop.
To forage crops hares are particularly destructive, preferring the artificial grasses - clovers and trefoil, with lucerne and sainfoin- to the native grasses and leguminous herbage, probably because more succulent and nutritious, and also through being less stained and fouled by themselves or their near relatives, the rabbits, which so foul natural pastures where they abound that neither cattle nor sheep will touch the herbage, or hares remain on land fouled by these rodents. By nibbling and eating off the tender growths, the clovers, trefoil, lucerne and sainfoin are much injured, being deprived of their growing extremities; and thus stunted and dwarfed, the crop is seriously deteriorated in bulk and in value, tracks being made through the crop; these and patches being depastured in bad cases. The rotation grasses suffer less than the clovers, etc., rye-grass making most headway and persisting longest against attacks by hares.
In hop-gardens hares bite off the tender bines of the hop plants, and even when the bine has ascended and is high up the pole they sever it, whilst relatively tender, at such distance from the ground as they can reach, and thus cause it to wither and die, stunting the plant and spoiling the prospective crop in proportion to the extent of the bine destruction. Market-garden crops also suffer from the onslaughts of hares, as nearly all the vegetables raised in fields, allotments and gardens are eaten, it being difficult to discover a crop they will not nibble and render uneven and unremunerative.
In fruit plantations and orchards, hares commit very extensive damage to young fruit-trees, barking the branches of dwarfs as well as the stems of these and standards, the apple trees suffering most, cherry and plum trees in a lesser degree, and pear trees, as a rule, are still less liable to damage. In very severe weather and snow covering the ground, hares will make incursions into villages and do considerable harm to young fruit-trees in cottage gardens, stripping off the bark, and, if all round the stem, killing the trees, sometimes when of size coming into remunerative bearing. Nurserymen, fruit-growers, and all interested in fruit production, from the Crown down to the humblest occupier, know to their cost that hares inflict great damage on young apple and pear, damson and plum trees, and that unless protected where hares abound fruit-growing is precluded. Similar remarks apply to pleasure grounds, flower gardens, and vegetable grounds, all being made safe against the attacks of hares, if expected to afford a fair profit.