It’s the time for mad March hares, says Pete Dommett, if you can find one, that is
Do you remember Masquerade? Like a lot of children who grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was fascinated by this curious picture-cum-puzzle book. Each page concealed clues to the whereabouts of a jewelled, golden hare that author and illustrator, Kit Williams, had hidden somewhere in the British countryside. It sparked a nationwide treasure hunt that lasted three years but, although I pored over the strange and compelling images for hours, I failed to fathom anything at all.
Real hares can be just as hard to find. They’re most active at night, but decidedly jumpy during the day too. If disturbed, they flee at a famously quick lick, reaching speeds of 45mph on those long legs and earning them the title of the UK’s fastest land mammal. The brown hare (to give it its proper name) – like its smaller and commoner cousin, the rabbit – is not a native animal, however. It’s thought to have been introduced to Britain in Roman times, or even earlier, but is now considered to be fully one of ‘ours’. In fact, we only have one indigenous species of lagomorph (the scientific order that rabbits and hares belong to) – the mountain hare of the north of England and Scottish Highlands.
March is the month for hares behaving madly, of course, which means they can be more visible at this time of year. The sight of a pair haring around a field, before squaring up on their hind legs and indulging in a bout of ‘boxing’, is a must-see spectacle of early spring. Until fairly recently, this bizarre display was assumed to be two males fighting for mating rights, but is now known to be a female hare (or ‘Jill’) fending off the advances of an overly amorous ‘Jack’ and, in the process, testing his strength and suitability as a potential partner. Mad then or just boxing clever?
The brown hare’s breeding season lasts from now until September, during which time three or four litters may be produced with up to four leverets in each. These arrive fully furred and with eyes wide open (unlike rabbit kittens which are born blind and naked). The young are raised in shallow scrapes on the ground, known as ‘forms’, rather than in burrows beneath it. To avoid detection by predators (like foxes, badgers and crows), the leverets lie motionless in these hollows with their ears pressed flat along their backs. Forms are also used by hares to shelter and hide in throughout the rest of the year.
…The sight of a pair squaring up on their hind legs and indulging in a bout of ‘boxing’ is a must-see spectacle of early spring…
Like so much wildlife, brown hares have suffered at the hands of agricultural intensification. The loss of traditional, mixed farmland has meant a lack of optimal habitat for hares, but they can still be found in the fields surrounding Bristol. Avon Wildlife Trust’s reserves at Folly Farm, Clapton Moor and Walton Common are all home to hares, as is the National Trust estate at Tyntesfield and even Bristol Airport.
Dusk and dawn are the most likely times to see hares, so I took an early morning drive across the moors of North Somerset, stopping every now and again to scan the fields for a tell-tale set of long, black-tipped ears. I spotted several roe deer, a few buzzards feeding on worms, plenty of pheasants and a rabbit, but not one hare. I’ll just have to keep on searching for this national treasure.