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Silk-hares are far larger than their southern cousins. An adult male will reach approximately 3.2' (1 meter) in length from nose to tail and weigh as much as 30 lbs. Females tend to be somewhat smaller in length but they retain body fat more efficiently and may actually be bulkier.
Silk-hares grow an impressive and bulky fleece more than adequate to the coldest nights in their natural habitat. Unlike an Angora rabbit and rather more like a sheep, this fluffy and weather resistant fleece thins at the face and on the legs to allow for better visibility and mobility respectively. (Fig. 1)
As many northern ranging lagomorphs, the silk-hare shifts color to a brown or gray if the temperature rises enough to produce the necessary shift in hormonal balance. This hormonal shift is independent from their breeding cycle and will not take place in higher altitudes lacking a sufficiently warm spring season. Their coats are white during most of their life cycle.
The fibers they produce are fine and lustrous and as such are highly prized by the Northerners. Despite the silky appearance that gives the animal their name, the individual fibers of its fleece are textured. This is what makes the fiber so appropriate for dying, felting, and spinning. They cannot be sheared, but can be “plucked” year round. They blow their coats twice a year and offer a greater fiber yield during this time. The fur taken from the silk-hare is often referred to as “silk-wool” to differentiate it from that of other northern wool-bearing creatures.
The silk-hare has shorter ears than its cousins from warmer climes, which protects the ear tips from frostbite. Under its impressive coat, the hare’s body is long and somewhat lean, though not quite to the extent of southern hare species. (Fig.2) In cold weather and at rest, the silk-hare hunches its back to decrease its surface area and conserve body heat. This common posture coupled with its impressive and bulky coat give it a misleading “plump” appearance. In actuality, silk-hares, like all hares, are not particularly good for eating due to a very low fat content in their meat. The females may be a good meal early in the autumn after they have had time to gain additional fat stores. The meat remains very gamy in flavor during all seasons but this flavor mellows slightly in the semi-domesticated hares, especially if they are grain fed.
On of the more unique adaptations of the silk-hare is the elongated dewclaw on the inside of both back feet. (Fig. 3) This long, downward-curving claw extends from a reinforced ankle bone. It can grow to be as long as 8". While it is used primarily as a mating aid by males, it is equally long in both males and females. They seldom injure one another fatally as their coat foils the sharp claw and prevents it from penetrating the flesh. However, with enough force behind a kick, a blow can be devastating to a predator or unlucky rival. A female silk-hare will turn her posterior outwards when defending a den or a litter. She digs the ceiling of her den past the entrance high enough to allow her to bring this formidable weapon into play with a backwards kick.
Reproduction and Social Structure:
Males compete for females. Most often they stand on their back legs and “box,” but their extended dewclaw will rapidly come into play. While their thick fur partially protects them, males may be heavily or mortally injured during this competition. The losing male is always driven off by the victorious male. The waiting female also becomes aggressive at this point and will often help the victorious male to hassle the loser.
The extended dewclaw then comes into play a second time as the male uses it to tangle in the female’s fur and hold him on her back during copulation. Her flesh, like that of his male rival, is protected by her dense coat. The pair will mate up to 20 times in a 24 hour period before the male moves on. The female raises the young alone.
Silk-hares are capable of mating year round. They have a comparatively long gestation period (45 days). They nurse their young for 8-10 weeks. The female does not come back into season until she has ejected her last litter from the den. A female tends to produce 3-6 kittens per litter with 4 being an average litter size. A female that looses a litter to predation, inattentiveness, or stillbirth will rapidly come back into receptiveness. Females will eat their young shortly after birth if the weather conditions are insufficient to support the litter. Severe stress will also cause her to reabsorb young after breeding. This is a particular concern in domestically kept females.
Like all hares, the offspring are born with open eyes, fully furred. They are called leverets. However, silk-hares are unique in that they are the only known hare to give birth to their young underground in the same fashion as a rabbit.
Hares do not live together in warrens as rabbits do. The females may bunch rather closely together in a particularly advantageous location. However, the females are territorial and a larger female will drive off any smaller ones who try to dig their den too close to hers. Males roam a bit farther but their territories are fairly limited and tend to be under a square mile. The males will only go below ground during the worst weathers. Males do not tend to be as territorial as the females except when a receptive female is in the immediate location. Bachelors will sometimes gather together two or three to a burrow during cold months. Males do not dig their own burrows but take over abandoned ones dug by females in earlier years. Females will do this as well but if a male has already claimed an abandoned burrow he will drive her off. If no abandoned burrows are to be found the female digs a new one.
While most silk-hares remain wild, Itakith has begun keeping them as semi-domesticated livestock. Itrelir took Itakith's successes and began their own semi-domestication in the early 1500s, largely driven by Brenesh.
In all semi-domesticated stock, the elongated dewclaw is trimmed down past the quick by experienced silk-hare tenders. This helps to minimize injuries during the portion of the year the silk-hares are kept. Rather keeping the silk-hares in hutches, those wishing to cultivate silk-hares merely create attractive den sites. Burrows may even be pre-dug to encourage the silk hares to opportunistically take them over. Silk-hares are territorial and, once established, do not tend to roam far as long as the food holds out. At the end of the winter season the villagers can move off to the summer gather sites and leave their stock behind to fend for themselves during the rich summer months. Most will remain in the same geographical location and those individuals that survive the winter can be reclaimed in the fall.
Their defensive dewclaws grow back during the course of the summer but they will never again grow as long as that of their entirely wild counterparts. Thus, it is relatively easy to tell which adults have been tended as domesticated stock in the future.
They are not picky browsers and can be fed on almost any plant that is not poisonous, including grasses, berries, non-waxy green leaves, bark, lesser amounts of vegetables and fruits, etc. One common dietary pitfall is their rapidly growing teeth. In winter, wild silk-hares routinely eat bark and other woody fibers to fuel them through the coldest months. A portion of their energy stores is dedicated to speeding tooth growth during the coldest months of the year. If this feeding pattern is not emulated in domestic stock, their teeth will rapidly overgrow in winter and if the teeth cannot be trimmed this condition will result in starvation.
They breed well in captivity. Silk-hare tenders may allow mating to continue normally or they may choose individuals to breed together for certain traits. In the case of the latter, a temporary pen is constructed to hold the male and female together. Without his elongated dewclaw a male is less effective at mating and will have trouble inseminating a female whose posterior is too thickly covered, so it is best to thoroughly pluck the female before introducing the male. The male must be removed promptly after 24 hours have elapsed to prevent territorial fighting and females must also be kept quiet after mating to prevent them from stressing and reabsorbing or ingesting their newborns. They are generally given an additional 24 hour rest period in the pen and then released in the evening of the following day to return to their den and begin preparing for their litter.
When kept in captivity, the silk-hare’s coat can be plucked once every three months and yield as much as two pounds of fiber at a time. Loose fiber can also be collected around their living spaces. Twice a year, they blow their coats entirely resulting in a greater yield including some of the coarser fibers closer to their skin. Their wool, while fine, will felt and can be spun alone or mixed with other fibers to produce a coarser yarn. It takes to dye exceedingly well and is responsible for some of the more colorful fibers available to Northerners.
Fibers may also be collected at a reduced rate from wild silk-hares. It is inadvisable to raid a den or to temporarily capture an animal for plucking because both are dangerous and stressful for the animal. Instead, the Northerners have devised a clever method to collect a portion of the wild silk-wool. A willow or a flexible sapling is bent into an open circular shape. The Northerner will then attach small twigs or bracken with the pointed end facing inside the opening. This structure is then placed over the holes of a silk-hare den and weighted with twine and rocks. As the animal enters and exits its den it is forced to pass through the circular opening. Its shedding fur snags on the inward facing sticks and can be safely collected. This task is physically undemanding and often undertaken by children.
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