Mr. Matsuki, our forester here at the Afan Woodland Trust in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, came to me just before Christmas in a very bad mood. He does get grumpy sometimes (he’s quite famous for it), but this time he was very, very cross. He stormed into my house, not even bothering to say hello, came into the kitchen, tossed his hat on the counter and launched into a tirade.
I’ll try to translate it into the equivalent in English, and let my poor editor figure out if it’s printable or not. (Hope this doesn’t upset too many readers — poor Ed.)
“Those idiot shit-danglers, they’ve gone and chomped off the ends of every single one! All of them! Makes me guts boil! Chomped off at the end! Really! Don’t need them damn things!”
“What’s wrong? Who got chomped?” I meekly enquired.
He gave me that “How can you be such an idiot” glance.
“Saplings! Oaks, beeches, cherries! All the ones we planted there last year. Hares invaded and chomped the end off every single one of them!”
Last summer, with a couple of dozen volunteers, we planted a few hundred saplings in an area of a few acres recently acquired by our trust, and which had previously been choked and covered with bamboo grass. Bamboo grass is very resilient and prevents pretty well any other plant from growing. Leaving a few patches of it for small birds that need thickets for nesting, we cleared the rest, tested the soil, and planted trees.
Hares never give us any trouble in spring or summer, but once the winter comes they chew the ends off twigs, especially when we get deep snow and the tops of young trees are sticking above the snow and are at a chewable height for hares. It doesn’t usually kill the tree, but it will stunt growth.
One time, while taking some students around, I showed them some young beech twigs that had been cropped at what was then my chin height (there being no snow because it was summer).
“See that? Chewed off by hares,” said I.
“Do hares climb trees?” asked one student.
Anyhow, returning to the conversation with Mr. Matsuki.
“There should still be enough greenery and other food for them — so why would they eat the ends of all the saplings,” I asked him.
“Not eaten,” he said. “Just chomped.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They want to make themselves a playground, where they can run around and fool about. We cleared the bamboo grass, and the trees are all small. They figure that if they chomp them while they’re little and eat back everything else, they’ll have a playground. That’s what they do.”
“As mad as a March hare,” indeed. I remembered seeing frolicking summer hares on Devon Island in Canada’s high Arctic. Six of them, all in a line, hopping on their back legs, front paws held out in front like a parade of fluffy white kangaroos. They all came hoppity-hop hopping straight through our camp. Then, ignoring us, on off up the hill they went, still in line and hopping until they disappeared out of sight over the top of the hill. The sight was so extraordinary and comical that none of us even thought of grabbing a rifle and popping one for the pot.
I’ve also seen hares in Britain jumping and fooling around in the middle of a field and, although I’ve never seen Japanese hares doing that, I have seen them running crazily across the snow on nights of a full moon.
Japan does not have true native wild rabbits, although there are a few places where they have gone feral. The Japanese for both “hare” and “rabbit” is usagi. The ones running wild in the woods and the one all Japanese children can see up there pounding rice cakes on the Moon (usagi no mochi tsuki) are hares, not rabbits.
Hares belong to the genus Lepus. The Arctic hare, Lepus arcticus, is the biggest, weighing up to 5 1/2 kg, and is found north of the tree line in Canada, Alaska and Greenland.
The European hare, Lepus capensis, prefers open grassland. It weighs up to 4 kg, and its natural range is Eurasia and Africa, although it has been introduced to parts of Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. It is a solitary animal except in the breeding season, which is when groups form and they run around and frolic. They can have three to four litters between spring and autumn, and females have the extraordinary capability of conceiving a second litter before the one before is born, by allowing copulation three to four days before birth. I even know the word for this — it’s super-foetation, although Americans spell it without the first “o.”
The Mountain hare, Lepus timidus, is a woodland creature. Stockier than the European hare, it weighs up to 4 1/2 kg. In summer and autumn its fur is brown, sometimes with a bluish appearance, which accounts for its other name of Blue hare. The fur turns white in the winter with just the tips of the ears black. This hare extends over the whole northern part of Eurasia. Our Kurohime hares also go white, with black ear tips, a process which is triggered by temperature and light intensity.
Unlike rabbits, young hares, or leverets, are born above ground after a gestation period of 40 to 50 days. Litters, which can number from one to four, are born fully furred, with their eyes open, and ready to run. (Rabbits are born in a well-lined, underground nest, and are blind and naked at birth.)
But I digress. Back to Mr. Matsuki’s tirade.
Since that first onslaught on our saplings, we have had quite a bit of snow, so those young trees are now completely buried. We’ll do our best once spring comes to help the survivors keep on growing, and I’ll be having a little word with the head of the local hunting association, who is a good friend. He knows that I have some gourmet recipes for cooking hare.
And once our dear and wise forester had vented his rage, I pointed out to him that hares don’t dangle their dung. It pops out perfectly neat and round. They can even do it on the run and, once dried, they aren’t averse to recycling the stuff. Of course Mr. Matsuki knows that, because he told some of our students that those little dry balls were “hare berries” and quite edible. We had quite a giggle when a student tasted one. I don’t recommend it, though, as apparently they’re rather bitter!