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From the December 2013 Conservationist

Two men and their two dogs pose in front of three dead rabbits hanging from the wall

European Hares of Upstate New York

By Dave Nelson

Editor's Note: This summer we heard from William Weckesser of Middlefield, CT, a 74- year-old gent who waxed poetic about bygone days. In his letter, he asked a question that piqued our interest. A few phone calls and e-mails took us back to earlier times and brought forth an interesting short story worth retelling: that of the European hares of upstate N.Y.

Mr Weckesser writes, "When I was a boy, my grandfather would tell me stories of getting in a horse-drawn wagon and going out to Millbrook to hunt what he called 'jack rabbits.' I found out later that they were actually European hares that were brought to eastern Dutchess County and released. The 'game guide' (as we called the hunting regulations booklet back then) used to list them as a huntable species in Dutchess County, but it no longer does. I often wonder what became of the hares.

I've included a picture of my great uncle and grandfather after a successful hunt. The hounds in the picture appear to me to be Walker fox hounds. It is only conjecture on my part, but I'm thinking that these hares run such a large circle that the hunters wanted a fast dog to bring the hares around more quickly.

Thinking back on my own 60 years of hunting in Dutchess County, I'm thankful for all the great outdoor experiences I've enjoyed. Still, there is one thing I wish I could do: I'd trade a lot for the ability to go back in time to the 1920s for just one day. I'd spend it with Grandpa Lou and Uncle Carl, hunting for those big 'jack rabbits.'

Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way. I'll just have to do it in my dreams."

Not knowing anything about European hares myself, I thought I should do a little research, and what better place to start than with the Conservationist magazine itself?

A European hare and a cottontail hare (both dead) lie side by side in the snow
Nearly twice as long as cottontails,
European hares weigh as much as
ten pounds.

European hares made several appearances in the Conservationist over the years, most notably in a February 1957 feature article aptly titled "The European Hare in New York." The article, which was also reproduced as an information leaflet, was written by the then Conservation Department's rabbit specialist, Game Reseach Investigator, Joe Dell.

Although I met him on several occasions, I can't say I knew Joe well as he had retired by the time I started my DEC career as a wildlife biologist. But like so many biologists "bitten by the bug," Joe had a hard time making a clean break from work; he continued to visit friends and colleagues in the office, even years after he retired. And it was then and there that I came to know him. Joe passed on recently, so I didn't have the luxury of asking him in person about the hares.

No matter; Joe's article on the history of European hares in New York is very informative. I'd encourage you to read it yourself at a local library, or perhaps we can post it online if enough folks are interested. In the article, Joe tells of how the hares were introduced from Hungary beginning about 1893, onto a wealthy landowner's estate in Dutchess County.

A hunter with a gun and his hunting dog

With messages that should be heeded today, the article goes on to explain that even a nine-mile-long fence couldn't contain the hares, and they expanded their range outward, first into neighboring counties, then into Connecticut and up the Hudson Valley. Dell's article reported that in a series of severe winters in the early 1900s, the hares damaged Dutchess County orchards, so the county paid a bounty of 25 cents a piece on 12,000 hares between 1912 and 1917. That's equal to nearly $6 in today's money! For you small game hunters out there needing no additional incentive to pursue your pastime, can you imagine being paid to hunt hares?

Two rabbit hunters in the field with their dogs
Above and below: Working with
hounds is an enjoyable part of
rabbit hunting.

Next, I called and e-mailed a number of older colleagues and recent DEC retirees, asking if they knew about the hares. Around here, retirees become a sort of institutional memory, mined when necessary, such as in this case. It's a little alarming to me, how many times I am taking on just such a role now!

In turn, colleagues pointed me to former wildlife technician and later conservation officer Collin Bursey, who, like Joe, retired just before I began my career. Collin worked on hares for a couple of years after being discharged from the service in 1955. He spoke of the hares once reaching as far north as Washington County, and as far west as Cherry Valley.

Sometime in the 1930s, European hare populations began a dramatic decline which continued for decades. According to Bursey, the hares liked large expanses of open area. Abandonment of farms during and after the Great Depression, and resulting landscape-level habitat change from open fields to brushlots to young forest stands certainly aided in the hare's demise.

As far as Bursey, or any of my colleagues knows, European hares (not to be confused with snowshoe hares) are no longer found in the wild. Although who knows-maybe an astute Conservationist reader can demonstrate otherwise!

In today's busy, rush-rush world of 100 e-mails a day, and tweets of no more than 140 characters, it's important once in a while to take a deep breath, power down the computer, read a handwritten letter, and enjoy a conversation with an elder. Someone who was there, well before we were.

Someone who can tell a story.

Dave Nelson is editor of Conservationist.

Photo: William Weckesser