Don’t blame springhares for chicory losses

Farmers who blame the southern springhare for destroying their chicory crops often hunt it as pest. However, a recent study indicates that the springhare is an innocent victim – the damage is more likely to be caused by the common duiker, an antelope that not only injures the leaf stock but also digs into the soil to expose the chicory root.

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Dr Dean Peinke of the Eastern Cape Parks Board conducted the study, which indicates that springhares normally avoid cultivated chicory, and any damage they cause to this crop is incidental. The study found no evidence of springhares feeding on chicory roots or leaves. Their diet in the Eastern Cape area consists of kweek grass and Cyperus esculentus (hoenderuintjie). They only damaged chicory incidentally, by exposing its roots while digging up the grasses’ rhizomes and tubers.

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However, this really only occurred around the edges of cultivated lands. Rather than preying on chicory, springhares probably avoid it because of its bitter taste, and because the uneven surface of its cultivated rows hampers their hopping. They prefer flat, open grasslands or sparsely vegetated terrain, which facilitates social behaviour, such as mate-finding, and is ideal for detecting and avoiding predators. Peinke’s research was done on a 226ha portion of Marlu farm, 40km outside Grahamstown, which is representative of the springhare habitat in this region.

It incorporated undisturbed natural grasslands, old fields in various stages of succession and recently cultivated areas, some of which contained chicory. Using a spotlight, 204 counts were taken on 45 nights over a period of 15 months.

A glutton … for grass
This portion of land is in a sourveld region where grasses become unpalatable in a relatively early stage of growth. But the springhare’s ability to dig up and feed on roots and tubers ensures they have a relatively stable food supply throughout the year, even when the above-ground vegetation can’t support other herbivores. In large numbers, springhares can totally denude large patches of vegetation. While feeding on roots and rhizomes they systematically dig over extensive patches of soil.

In the study, small feeding patches of less than 50cm in diameter were scattered all over preferred camps. Feeding patches of 2m to 3m in diameter were also common and the larger ones appeared to be used repeatedly. In this study the hares avoided old and frequently disturbed camps, even those containing a high proportion of good quality grasses such as red grass. Ploughing a camp caused a temporary decrease in their numbers. Burning attracted them, perhaps because of new growth combined with a decrease in the height of the vegetation. Although only an insignificant proportion of most camps were dug over, these patches accounted for 4% to 6% of the total cover in the most-preferred camps.

These were usually recently disturbed camps or those dominated by kweek and C. esculentus. Kweek, of course, is a serious weed in cultivated lands but is also relatively good grazing grass. Springhares appear to have a mutually beneficial relationship with pioneer species like kweek. For the grass, continuous disturbances by springhares seem to be beneficial, like ploughing. The grasses, in turn, are springhares’ favoured food sources. The Eastern Cape is the southern limit of the southern springhare’s habitat. Here rainfall is typically much higher than at previous study sites, the climate is less seasonal, agriculture is practiced more intensely, and the natural vegetation differs. Despite their destructive feeding habits the overall impact of springhares in the Eastern Cape appears to be relatively low.

However, they could be a factor in arid and semi-arid environments as well as areas where palatable crops or pastures are grown. In the Northern Cape, for example, they are known to utilise at least 20 different plant species, including dwarf shrubs.