Sunday, May 15, 2016


I was driving up the road near Hauroko Valley school recently when a hare came loping out of the grass.  We paced each other, glancing across to see who was winning.  I was hoping he would zip in front of me so I could squash him but he turned aside eventually and in the rear-view mirror I could see him sitting up on a bank; he raised a paw and gave me a cheery wave.  A cynic might say he was brushing a grass stalk out of his face. 

 When I was a student we used to rely on what we could run over for part of our food supply.  I remember hares, rabbits, possums and a turkey.  Of these the hare is the best.  Old ones get a bit woody but a young hare roasted in the camp oven is a great meal.  The custom in wealthier families in England was to hang the hare, guts in, until the fur came loose or the ears fell off or something.  In New Zealand they were not hung but jugged.  The hare was cut into small pieces which were marinated in a jar of port wine – jugged – then stewed and served with gravy and red currant jelly.  For those who arrived too late to enjoy their piece of the hare there was an expression – kissing the hare’s foot – implying that that was the only taste you would get.

We are familiar with the hare as the gingery and long-limbed creature, loping through the tussock and pausing momentarily to check that there is enough distance between him and us.   The hare elicits from us a different and more kindly reaction than if our encounter had been with his cousin the rabbit.  He bears the virtue of being a modest rather than a profligate breeder, carries himself with a little more dignity and shows himself as a lone spirit, a creature of the remote places, and independent of the company of his fellows.  He is a virile and sometimes stroppy animal and you will recall the diffidence with which Dog, the hero of the Footrot Flats series, approached his hare duties. 
British Naturalist J.G.Millais said of hares, They are very gentlemen, just as the rabbit is a very cad." 

The hare has a place in folklore, representing speed, fecklessness and fertility.  
As with rabbits, the chief defence is flight and they are swifter – 72km/h for a short burst, it is said – and the marvellous zig-zag course of a pursued hare has made it a favoured game animal. 
The antics of hares can be amusing, with chasing, sparring and running in circles, the Mad March Hare syndrome.  These are the responses of uninterested females to the advances of males.  The young, called leverets, are born furred and with eyes open and reach independence earlier than rabbit kits. 
Two to five are born at a time and there can be a number of litters in a year.  Individual hares have much greater natural range than rabbits, feeding broadly rather than intensively cropping a small area.  Each occupies several hundred hectares while the typical rabbit range is about a hectare.  Rabbits are often seen in groups but the hare is solitary or as Ogden Nash says, ‘The hare is rare but the rabbit is a habit’.

Hare ranges are not territories and several hares feed in intersecting ranges.  They are particularly damaging to young pines where they nip out the growing shoot, spoiling the tree for optimal timber production.  
In 1922 George Thomson said that hares are said to tend to turn white in the colder parts of their range in winter and in 1921 this was reported to be a familiar phenomenon in Canterbury.  Turning white in winter is a characteristic of the related Mountain hare Lepus timidus and it is possible that some of these had been introduced with the commoner hares.  The phenomenon seems to be quite unknown these days. 

In 1867 three hares were brought from Victoria for the Otago Acclimatisation Society and turned out at Lake Waihola.  The Southland society imported some from Victoria in 1869 and liberated them at Benmore.  They were introduced for sport in the form of coursing which involved flushing a hare and releasing two greyhounds.  The one which nabbed or turned it most often was the winner.