He (or she – I never did try to find out) seemed quite content with the daily rhythm of feed, weigh and cage and there were no more unexpected (scary) episodes. Continuing to take advice from the Hare Preservation Trust and Susan McClure, I followed feeding instructions relating to age and weight and approached weaning with some trepidation.
I introduced a wide variety of the right grasses, herbs and a few treats (pea pods turned out to be a real favourite) and began to reduce his milk. Feeding time was twice a day, at about 7am and 6-7pm because those are likely the times that hares will naturally feed in the wild.
He objected strongly to the reduction in milk delivery – when I’d taken it down to about 25mls once a day, it disappeared so fast that his head was going backwards and forwards obviously wondering where the heck the rest was. When, within a day or two, I stopped the milk completely, he butted my hand as I took out the previous delivery of uneaten grass, clearly – even in a hare-y way – looking for his bottle. That only lasted a day or two and I assuaged his need (and my mild guilt) with a couple of pea pods treats on arrival.
Releasing him was now high on the To Do list. He was completely weaned, in a very large cage with lumps of wood to gnaw on and pieces of turf that I’d dug up from the garden to give him the right environment to hunker down during the day. Hares position themselves in a scrape or ‘form’ in a field, ideally near a few tussocks of grass so that their profile is less visible. When I arrived in the evening, if I could sidle up without him hearing me – he’d be up immediately and in his ‘dining area’ waiting for room service if he did – he’d be tucked down between two of these tussocks. If he’d been in a field, he’d have been very difficult to spot.
He was a good size – I’d stopped weighing him as I didn’t want to handle him at all – and I was confident he was good to go… but where? Happily, a few years earlier we’d met a British guy who had a stable of heavy horses about 30 minutes away. He made hay once a year with these horses, no silage (silaging particularly kills leverets because it scalps the ground and the leverets don’t know to get out of the way) and left wild field margins which weren’t cut. He used no pesticides and didn’t allow hunting. Hunting (locals, out every week, with dogs and guns) was the main reason that release at La Fosse wasn’t ideal – I wanted to give Grunty the maximum chance of a long life. And there were already hares on the land thus indicating it was a good environment for them.
So one sultry August afternoon, we popped Grunty with some of his bedding (to give him a sense – and scent – of familiarity) into a cat carrier. He seemed entirely unperturbed by the unusual activity or the car journey itself and we drove him over to Richard’s. We walked across a couple of fields and while Patrick and Richard chatted, I walked on a bit further into the uncut field margin and opened the cat carrier several metres from a hedge. Grunty came out himself – with no particular urgency but looked around with interest. I gave him a peapod or two, put the straw and hay from the cat carrier in a dip under some bracken and left him to it.
As I packed up the cat carrier and walked away, he ambled away from me, snatching a mouthful of leaves as he went. He didn’t look back. It was an entirely uneventful release and I do feel that we prepared him for a life under the open sky as well as we could.
It was a fascinating exercise – it was one thing reading up about what I needed to do but it turned out Grunty hadn’t always read the same websites so, particularly for the first few weeks when I was trying to figure out the best feeding regime, it was difficult to get right… to do things in a way that a hare’s instincts told him he needed. I second-guessed myself a lot. It would have been very tempting to try and turn him into a semi-wild pet… so many books we read as children encourage us to do that with rabbits, otters, birds… But I was sure that the best way to equip him for the future was not to take away or dull his instincts – in particular his instinctive wariness of humans so I handled him and was around him as little as possible.
Oh, and apparently, a leveret doesn’t become a hare till its first birthday, regardless of how big it is. 😉