The varying hare, or snowshoe hare as they are often called, is native to Ontario and a popular small game animal found in the Northeast. A true symbol of northern woods, varying hares are named for their varying fur coloration throughout the year.
During the warm summer months, a varying hare exhibits the rusty brown coat which allows them to blend more easily with the environment. In autumn as temperatures drop, the hare’s fur changes. In less than 2 months’ time the hare’s coat becomes a prominent white which they keep throughout the winter, helping them blend in with the snow. Along with their smaller cousin the cottontail rabbit and the larger European hare, they make-up the three rabbit/hare varieties found in Ontario.
Varying hares have long ears and legs as well as a thick coat of fur compared to the more southern cottontail. Hares also have huge fur-covered feet proportionate to their body size which helps keep them ‘afloat’ during the wintery snow conditions of the north.
Hares in the Wild
Varying hares are an animal typical of the boreal forest, found in most areas of the North and Northeast. They are active year-round and tend to be crepuscular, or most active early and late in the day, as well as slightly nocturnal where much of their feeding is done at night. Hares are found in mixed coniferous and deciduous vegetation, although they prefer conifers and often seek deep brushy cover during the day. Females may have two and even three litters of 3-4 young (leverets) per litter.
Varying hares are ecologically important as forage for larger predators, in addition to being a small game hunting and trapping resource. The varying hare has a close predator-prey relationship with the lynx. Historical records taken over decades have noted that seasons when varying hare numbers were low, lynx numbers were, too. Although the cycle isn’t always the same, hunters and trappers will tell you that every 7–10 years varying hare numbers will peak and then begin to decline. Because of predators and environmental factors, hares rarely live longer than 4 years in the wild.
Hunting the hare
Hunting the varying hare is often carried out with the use of hounds to help flush the secretive mammals from their tight daytime shelter, but they can be pursued without hounds as well. Those autumns with early snowfall followed by an unseasonable warm period during late November or December will expose the whitened hares, causing them to stick-out like a sore thumb against the drab-colored landscape. This makes them easier prey for hunters. When flushed from cover, varying hares can escape at nearly 30 miles per hour with an adult able to jump almost 10 feet in single bound.
For field-dressing and preparing this game animal post-harvest, the Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry (MNRF) recommends peeling the hide completely off and removing the tail prior to removing the entrails. The MNRF also suggests trimming away any shot-damaged meat and removing any shot that remains. A varying hare carcass should be cooled and maintained at a temperature not exceeding 4 degrees Celsius as soon as possible to ensure the best quality meat.
Should you bag a nice brace of varying hares this fall and wonder how to cook them, try this tasty dish from my Canadian Wild Game Cookbook, published by Company’s Coming.
- 4 varying hare legs (skinned & rinsed)
- 3/4 cup red wine
- 6-8 pepper corns
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 slices bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tbsp butter, softened
- 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, marinate your hare legs in the red wine, bay leaf and peppercorns. Allow to marinate for a minimum of 3 hours, can be left overnight. Remove meat from the marinade, reserving the marinade for later. Cover the hare legs evenly with the ¼ cup of flour. Cook the bacon in a Dutch oven until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and drain all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat. Add legs to the bacon fat in the Dutch oven and brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining marinade and remaining ingredients, except for butter and remaining 1 tablespoon of flour to the Dutch oven and stir well. Cover and bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Mix softened butter and flour to form a paste. Gradually add to sauce and stir well. Return bacon to the Dutch oven and bring sauce to boil. Continue cooking until sauce thickens. Serve with fresh bread or dinner buns.
The hunting season for varying hares in most of Northeastern Ontario runs until February 28, 2017. There is no daily possession limit in place for WMU’s 1 – 50 and 53-59. A daily possession limit of 6 applies to WMU’s 60-95.
Anyone planning to hunt hares in Ontario this fall should consult the Ontario Hunting Regulations.