It was almost exactly a year ago when the dreaded dog Ruby paused in her ruination of a game of badminton to duck into the flowerbed and reappear with a mouthful of fur. My two nieces and two daughters dropped their rackets to retrieve the panting creature from her jaws, then ran into the kitchen and begged me to save the baby rabbit. Absolutely not, I replied. We shoot rabbits. Rabbits should not be in our flowerbeds. I hate rabbits.
I’d underestimated the passionate animal-welfare genes that run up, down and sideways through my nieces, who were now visibly re-evaluating me, downwards, by the second. I was wondering if I had the stamina to ring the neck of the traumatised creature when they reappeared with a second baby rabbit from the same flower-bed, at which point Zam came home, took one look and said: ‘Those are baby hares.’ That was, of course, a game changer.
The leverets sat motionless in the cupped hands of my niece Molly while her sister Hannah Googled ‘how to save baby hares’. Within seconds, she’d found the Hare Preservation Trust, whose excellent website explained that we were about to embark on a tricky endeavour. A box, a jumper (or similar) to which the leverets could become attached and a quiet room were the only things we could provide on Sunday evening. Making sure they stayed alive long enough for us to buy Esbilac, a puppy milk substitute, was the first challenge. We would move on to micro-encapsulated, water-soluble probiotics in due course.
It was the beginning of half-term and, over the following week, my nieces showed an all-consuming passion for the task, waking early to feed the leverets (which could take up to an hour) and weighing them daily. Seven days later, they brought the leverets back and handed them over to Zam. Despite the gloomy outlook (neither hare was looking exactly bubbly), he noted down Molly and Hannah’s instructions and tried not to feel a weighty responsibility.
I have the feeding chart in front of me now. The leverets, Big Spot and Small Spot, weighed 111g (3.9oz) and 115g (4.1oz) respectively. I can see that, on day 9, Big Spot took 41mm (1.6in) of milk and weighed 159g (5½oz). On day 14, Small Spot took only 21mm (0.8in), but Big Spot took 37mm (1½in). There are eight pages of this, filled in by a man who was setting the alarm to do morning feeds at 5am and night feeds at 11pm.
He sat, with Molly’s jumper on his lap, in the quietest room we could find and was ecstatic or downcast, depending on their intake. They weren’t bringing out his inner Beatrix Potter, but he desperately wanted the wild hares to survive. On the odd occasion when Zam was away, I was tasked with the feeding, although nobody trusted me and my entries on the chart are noted with a question mark.
As one got stronger, the other continued in an uncertain pattern until it seemed to barely exist. On day 28, the bald entry reads: ‘Died from bowel malfunction.’ Zam sent the corpse of Small Spot for a post mortem.
The diet for Big Spot progressed to include dried grass, then fresh grass and plenty of dandelions until day 40, when he was weaned entirely. There was something a bit milky about one of his eyes, but the vet said this would clear up once he was surviving on an entirely fresh diet. After six weeks, we all decided release day had come.
The two families gathered in a field where hares had been seen in previous days. Big Spot ran in an enormous circle before heading for the woods and we all felt rather proud. Actually, the circle running had worried us a bit-we wondered if that milky eye had sent him off balance-which is why, when I mentioned yesterday the beautiful hare I’d seen on the side of the road and asked Zam if it might be our hare, he simply replied: ‘Did it run into a tree?’
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