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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe 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.

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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.

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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.

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Oh, and apparently, a leveret doesn’t become a hare till its first birthday, regardless of how big it is. 😉

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I’d been warned that it would not be an easy task as hares are animals that are easily stressed and if stressed, won’t eat. And then their surprisingly delicate digestive system packs up and they die.

It seemed logical to me to provide the leveret with the same sort of environment as it would have with its mother when feeding – open air, open skies… but it wasn’t very successful and if even a bird flew over, he would stop feeding from the syringe, freeze, and I wouldn’t be able to encourage him to start again.

Then, analysing further – channelling my inner hare – I guessed that leverets would certainly be in the open air but probably had their heads stuck under Mama Hare’s furry underparts so they could reach the milk dispensers. In which case they wouldn’t be able to see anything and even their hearing would be dulled. So I started feeding him inside one of the downstairs rooms at La Fosse – which was still under construction but unsurprisingly, your average leveret doesn’t care about half-finished plasterboarding or droopy insulation… or even a lack of the now mandatory “pops of colour”. Result: the feeding routine began to work perfectly. So perfectly that, when he graduated from syringe to bottle, he was so focussed and fast that I had to pull him off the teat momentarily so he could swallow and breathe, before he latched on again and finished the bottle.

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Letting him guzzle too quickly risked him inhaling milk which would lead to a lung infection – a really bad thing – so it was a balance between him getting the occasional controlled breath but not pausing long enough for him to lose interest. I believe that the mother will only stay with the leverets long enough to feed them before she’s off again so perhaps a leveret instinctively believes feeding time is over if the milk source is removed for more than a few seconds. He then cannot be persuaded to start again.

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The process at feeding time was to collect him from his dog crate in a piece of towelling that he’d used from day 1 so had all the right, familiar scents, carry him indoors in towel in a basket, feed him, weigh him, and return him back to his nest. This eventually took a maximum of 3-4 minutes each time so adhering to my principle of keeping him as unhandled and unaccustomed to humans as possible. I was the only one who fed him – again in an attempt to prevent him assuming all humans were a food source.

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There were a few hiccups along the way – although we put additional wire mesh around the dog crate so that, when tiny, he couldn’t nip out through the wire, when he was about 3 weeks old, one night he tried climbing the wire and pushing through the bars. He got stuck. When I went out to him the following morning, he was just hanging, head through the bars, eyes closed. Aaaagh. I forced the bars apart, popped his head back through and held him while he woke up. He’d rubbed the fur off his hind legs – scrabbling with them to get through and then, when that didn’t work, to get free but he took his bottle with great enthusiasm and appeared not to be any the worse for his experience. The chicken wire was extended up the crate during his breakfast. On another occasion he managed to slip underneath the bottom of the tray and out into the undergrowth but fortunately Patrick was on hand to capture him and pop him back. Gaps were plugged immediately.

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He continued to grow and then it was time to wean him off milk and onto grasses and other herbage. He was not amused.

Part III to follow.

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I suspect not.

I cannot believe that it is approaching two years since I blogged. How can the time have flown so fast? I was distracted by a tumblr site I started last year to enable me to post quick batches of photos of places we had been and things we had seen but even that has fallen into disuse. And it’s not as if I don’t have plenty of wildlife to blog about…

A friend has been having the fun and interest of watching hares – of various sizes – visit her garden since spring so in view of the fact that hares are on my mind, I’ll take the opportunity to write about Grunty the Leveret. That should also please a certain Madame Cardy…

It was a hot and sunny afternoon in early June about 7 years ago. I’d noticed Pepper the dog lying in full sun, looking hot and uncomfortable but intent on something in the long grass. I didn’t think much of it but about an hour later, noticed he was still there, panting hard and he’d been joined by several cats who were also looking down into the grass. Odd.

On closer inspection, a small creature sat up on its hind legs and grunted loudly and aggressively at me. The cats backed off, Pepper wagged his tail and I picked up what I assumed was a rabbit and then realised must be a leveret, a baby hare.

Oh blimey !

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Leveret, estimated to be between 24 and 48 hours old

Young rabbits don’t emerge from the warren until they are well developed and mobile. This feisty little creature was too small and not sufficiently mobile to be a young rabbit so it must be a hare. And I’d picked it up. Having picked it up, I’d transferred my scent to the animal so even if I could figure out from where Pepper had found the leveret (which was not possible) Mama Hare would reject the leveret because it now smelt ‘wrong’.

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The unevenness to the round shape of the eyelid and the slightly crinkly ears are the clues as to his age established via photos by Susan McClure of Harebells in the UK

First step was to find out how to keep the animal alive. Google was my – and the leveret’s – friend. I found the wonderful Hare Preservation Trust’s website and also an exceptionally knowledgeable and helpful woman – Susan McClure – who patiently talked me through the first few days.

The site (at that time) recommended powdered kitten milk as being the product most easily available from a vet in sensible quantities for most people. However, the gold standard was ewe replacement milk for lambs – for reasons of high fat content, apparently. Happily, though we had no ewe replacement milk in the house, we knew where we could get it so while I got to work with some glucose solution in case the leveret was dehydrated, Patrick went off in search of a friendly neighbourhood farmer who was bottle-feeding lambs and therefore had a scoopful of powder available. And my mission to Grow A Leveret began…

…How to grow a leveret – part 2 to follow in a few days.

 

Well, the past few mornings and evenings, I’ve been out leveret spotting and the good news is… I have no news. There’s been no sign of them and I think their migration from the comparitive safety of the field was due to a herd of young cattle in that field, trampling around them. Patrick is fairly sure that, during the afternoon, the electric fence had been relocated to give the calves a new strip of grazing and that may have interfered with the leverets. I hope they went back, tucked themselves in close to the hedgerow (not ideal but out of the way of bovine feet) and were found and fed by their mother on schedule.

Hares prefer to give birth – and lie low themselves – in pasture which is either lightly managed (ignored!) or grazed by cattle. Sheep graze pasture closely which leaves no daytime cover for either adult hares or leverets whereas cattle ‘browse’ more and often leave tussocks of grass and weeds more or less untouched. This uneven ground is perfect cover for hares who scrape themselves a slight depression and hunker down, ears flat, to wait out the day. Though they do sit up occasionally to check out the lie of the land…

Hare in maize field, early summer – s/he knew I was there with a camera and was deeply suspicious

Getting ready to make his excuses and leave…

It occurs to me that I’ve never written about Grunty, a leveret brought home by Pepper, a yellow labrador X that we had till a few years ago. I’ve a lot of blog-worthy things to catch up with – mating moths, glow worms, Loose & Leafy Tree Following (which I’ve not got around to publishing this past two months) but I must also make time to post about The Leveret Summer – when we raised a 48 hour old leveret from a few hundred grams to a very healthy release weight. In October, when I have a little more time, I think. 🙂

Grunty the Leveret, post feed, aged 2 – 3 days old

As if I haven’t enough to fret about… this evening, just as it turned dark, I was driving back from the village to La Fosse when a small creature hopped across the road. At first glance, it was a young rabbit. At second glance…

…it was a leveret – a young hare.

A beautifully camoflaged leveret on the roadside verge – taken with flash

Hares are remarkable creatures. The female gives birth to eyes-open, fully furred, young. She parks them in a field or similarly suitable rough grass where they’ll blend into the foliage and earth colours.

Depending on season and availability of food, she’ll give birth to between 2 and 4 leverets and they nestle into the ground, in the open, in all weathers from day one. Mother Hare returns morning and evening to feed the youngsters and the milk bar is open for about a minute before she is loping off again and leaving the leverets to wait until her next visit. They’ll wait through blazing sun, heavy Normandy rain, frosts and even snow.

Note the black ‘notches’ on the ears which are held flat to the back to present as streamlined and invisible a profile as possible

Whereas young rabbits (born hairless and with eyes closed underground in the warren) will try and run away once they are old enough to be above ground, young hares rely on their camoflage to keep them safe. They don’t run, they fold their ears back and hunker down in the hope that the danger – the predator – will pass them by. So as I’d established that the one I’d seen was a hare, I drove home to pick up a camera in case they were still there when I got back.

They were… two of them (but possibly a third further up the bank at the back of the verge) and judging by their size, they are about 4-5 weeks old. I’d expect them to still be on mother’s milk and am concerned that they were on and adjacent to the road. However, they are big enough to be mobile – though not fast – perhaps they sensed danger in the field (a marten, stoat or weasel?) and decided to move. Or perhaps something has happened to Mother Hare and they were moving in the hope of finding her. The timing, shortly after dusk, certainly fits with feeding time. Well, I can’t know but I am really hoping that these little leverets will survive.

I’ll look for them in the morning, of course, but doing the right thing is impossible to gauge. If I touch them, that’s it: as I have to assume they are still being fed milk, I would have to take them and finish raising them to release weight. If I touch them, Mother Hare – if she is still around – will smell my scent on them and will abandon them.

I hate these natural world conundrums… life is precarious for these little creatures but interfering if you don’t know the circumstances is not a good idea. If I’d seen a hare dead on the road I’d have no hesitation in making an assumption, scooping up these little creatures and helping them over the next few weeks with ewe replacement milk (richer in fats compared to, say, kitten milk) and then weaning them on to grass and herbs. But if Mother is still doing her thing, they’re better off with mum than going through the shock of adapting to being bottle fed.

And if I’m honest, even if they do continue to survive with or without mum, just as they get their legs – the powerful back legs which give them their speed and ability to change direction in a heartbeat – the hunting season will start and if a local gun spots these magical creatures, I can confidently predict the end of several short little lives.

I am not against hunting for the pot, but hares are fascinating, secretive animals and their behaviours are not fully understood even now and I’d really rather see them running wild at dawn and dusk than providing a few mouthfuls on a plate.

Sweet chestnut flowers – male and female are carried on the same tree though two (or more) trees are required for successful pollination

It started about two weeks ago. That irresistible sweaty socks scent on the breeze. Yes… the chestnut flowers were out. The flowers really change the look of the tree – from a distance, it looks as if it has been dressed with lemon icing. The lemon male flowers are usually at the top of the clusters, the female being smaller, greener and, somewhat predictably, underneath.

Chestnut tree in the early July landscape

We had a lot of hot sun last week and the flowers have quickly been pollinated and begun to turn brown. Some of the spent catkins are beginning to fall and the scent is dissipating daily. Now the hard work starts: the tree has to convert the flowers into ripe fruit over the next few months.

The bees – and other pollinating insects – have had a wonderful time. Standing underneath it one afternoon last week, there was no man-made sound at all, just the deafening buzz of the insects amongst the flowers… and the crickets on the hillside.

A few years ago, the honey from our hives was very distinctly chestnut flavoured… the bees had a long and sustained period on the trees and the species is available in abundance in this area.

It will be interesting to see what sort of crop we get this year – sweet chestnuts apparently produce their best crops after a hard winter and last winter was notoriously mild. On the other hand, it’s been a good and settled year for the flowers to get well-pollinated so on that basis at least, we should be on course for a bumper crop. We’ll see.

A bit of a theme in my tree following posts has been the inclusion of a photo showing the full(-ish) moon at around the 7th of each month. I didn’t include one in the June post earlier because I thought it’s worth a brief extra post, to show the moon around midnight last night / this morning.

A ‘honey moon’ over a sweet chestnut tree at La Fosse taken from the top of the drive

The June full moon occurs when the sun is furthest from the earth and the moon is closest. When the moon is close to the horizon, the ordinary atmospheric pollution causes the moon to have the golden (ish) halo, the colour of honey. Apparently, in the 1500s, June was a popular month for weddings and they often took place around the time of the ‘honey moon’.

This evening, wait until dusk and then go out to see if you can spot the moon hanging near the horizon. Does it look any more spectacular?

Take the opportunity of seeing whether the International Space Station is due over at the same time. Using this ISS site, you can put in your post code and country and get forecasts of when you’ll get sightings, the length of visibility and brightness. Sky needs to be clear and the reason you can see the ISS is because the sun is reflecting off it as it moves through the skies enabling it to be easily visible to the naked eye.

For those in northern France / southern England, there’s a good view tonight at about 22.10 22h10 (BST) / 23h10 (CEST) for about 6 minutes. Alternatively, try on Saturday night at 23.00 (BST) / midnight (CEST) on Saturday night. Planes have blinking lights, satellites and the ISS do not – they’re just fast moving lights orbiting the earth.

And though it’s a bit of a leap of faith for you, honestly, this smear of light was the ISS as it passed over the chestnut tree at about midnight (CET) last night…

The International Space Station moving through the sky above the chestnut tree at La Fosse – midnight on 12/13 June 2014

Sorry about the camera shake!

 

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“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” — Albert Einstein

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