Mad March

A leveret, offspring of the brown hare | Photo: R.S. Hughes

It’s minus five or six degrees. My hands are numb and writing in my notebook is difficult. So what Dr. Teresa Valencak is explaining seems even more remarkable.

“Though they live and even sleep above ground, they’re not particularly bothered by the cold,” she says. As she tells me this, one of the creatures in question bolts across its enclosure, startling us both.

“And they’re untamable,” she adds. “Very, very wild.”

These are some of the reasons that Teresa finds the brown hare so fascinating. She’s spent the past eight or nine years studying the species at Vienna’s Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, now one of the world’s leading centers for research into this shy, solitary creature. This is where I’ve come to meet her.

Through working with a captive population of around 70 animals at the institute, Teresa has made good inroads into understanding both the cold adaptation abilities of hares (they increase the levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids in their bodies) and their breeding habits. Hares can become pregnant even while lactating and can give birth to up to 22 leverets each year. Offspring are born fully furred with open eyes and are able to defend themselves almost immediately.

March is a particularly good month to see some of the behavior that makes this species so unique. ‘Mad’ March hares can be spotted across the country, but especially in eastern Austria and in agricultural regions. The madness refers to an unreceptive female’s method of fending off the advances of amorous males: by using her front paws to box.

Austria has a good population of brown hares, while they are generally declining across other European countries due to poor juvenile survival rates as a result of habitat loss and intense farming. As they’re so shy, however, the fertile Marchfeld area to the east of Vienna is the best place for an easy sighting. But since hares can reach speeds of up to 72km/h – more than four times the speed of equivalent sized mammals – it’s best to take a good pair of binoculars.

One of the reasons the species is doing so well over here, explains Teresa, is that Austrian hunters act responsibly. They monitor hare numbers and limit their shooting accordingly. While we’re on the subject, I ask Teresa if she’s a fan of cooked hare.

“I’ve only tried it once she says,” with a nervous laugh since we’re surrounded by them. “And I didn’t like it very much.”

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