Philip Strange tells how an unexpected road closure led to a surprising encounter with three hares.
The minor road headed roughly northwards, climbing gradually across chalk downland towards Ansty Cross. At least that’s what we had planned until a large red and white placard loomed ahead of us at a four-way junction declaring “Road Closed” in capital letters. It didn’t specify which road was closed and we could see no sign of roadworks so we decided to take the risk and press on past the sign. At the next junction, though, another sign was more specific. The road ahead, our planned route, was closed and, this time, we could see the roadworks blocking our way. A few minutes of frantic map reading revealed that an alternative was possible and soon we were on our way northwards again. We were now following a very quiet one car’s width-road lined by hawthorn scrub and low fences with grassy downland rising on the western side, a pleasant if unanticipated place to be on this mild, sunny early May morning.
Suddenly as we drove on, two animals, the size of medium dogs, shot out from the hedge and proceeded to chase one another up the road ahead of us. We slowed down to avoid upsetting them and watched, transfixed. My initial reaction was “two deer, possibly muntjac”. I was wrong, though, because just as suddenly as they appeared, they turned and ran back into the hedge and it became clear that these were hares, running fast. One came out again on to the road briefly before returning through the hedge on to the downland.
We moved forward, stopped the car and looked through a gap in the hedge on to the nearby field. It was like looking through a portal into another world as there on the downland were three hares with their long ears and sandy brown fur, almost golden in the morning sunshine. One was very still and held its ears down but the other two proceeded to have a rough and tumble, squaring up aggressively, running about at high-speed, chasing, even jumping over one another. After a few minutes, one ran off, “defeated” and we decided to leave the hares in peace. We drove on, in total silence for some time but glowing, after one of the more surprising and emotional wildlife encounters we have ever experienced.
The animals we saw are more properly called brown hares to distinguish them from the other species found in the UK, the mountain hare, now mostly confined to the Highlands of Scotland. Brown hares are large animals, about twice the size of a rabbit with sandy brown fur, long black-tipped ears, powerful back legs and staring eyes set so that they have almost all-round vision. They are herbivores inhabiting grassland and open woodland, feeding mainly on young cereals, grasses and herbs. In autumn and winter, brown hares are nocturnal, solitary creatures ranging widely and feeding at night. They have no burrow and rest during the day in a hollow in the ground where from a distance they are largely invisible. The lack of burrow makes them potentially vulnerable to predators such as foxes or birds of prey so they are always on the watch for threats, helped by their superb vision and hearing. They can usually elude predators by being able to run at speeds up to 40 mph.
Their lives change in the spring months when mating becomes the driving force leading to the sort of daytime display we witnessed that morning. The classic behaviour is “boxing” when two animals square up to one another and may exchange blows but chasing and jumping also often occur. This pattern is now thought to reflect a persistent male encountering a reluctant female who tries to fend him off and the energetic leaping and wild chasing have given rise to the phrase “as mad as a March hare”. The pattern may also be part of a ritual where the female selects a suitable mate based on his strength and endurance.
Female hares are receptive to males for much of the year, they can conceive even when already pregnant and can have up to four litters in a year. Young hares, leverets, are born fully furred and with eyes open into a depression in the ground. The adult female leaves the young during the day returning at night to give one feed. The young leverets left like this are vulnerable to predators and some may also be killed by grass cutting equipment. Other threats facing hares come from intensification of farming which has removed some food sources needed for good nutrition and there has also been an increase in the number of foxes. The result is a 75% reduction in the brown hare population since WW2.
With their lives lived mostly at night and often unseen there is something elusive and undefinable about hares. Add to this their surprising behaviour during the breeding season and it’s easy to see why these creatures have become associated over the years with myth and magic. One widespread belief in medieval times was that hares were shape shifters linked to witches and related stories of this transformation may be found in various parts of the country.
A Dorset version of the shape shifter myth is told by local story teller Martin Maudsley. It concerns a group of four farm labourers from Littlebredy who went out at night hunting with dogs to catch animals for food. While they went hunting, they left their farming tools by the house of an old woman whom some people in the village thought was a witch and others respected as a healer. One evening when the men were out hunting, they glimpsed a mysterious and magical creature, a pure white hare and tried unsuccessfully to catch her. Catching the white hare became an obsession for the men and one evening they were almost successful. They cornered the white hare and she was thrown about and bitten by the dogs but still managed to escape.
When the men went to collect their tools, they found the old woman lying on the floor in her cottage badly injured with her clothes ripped and bloody. Most of the men left quickly, filled with fear and guilt, but one stayed with the old woman and nursed her back to health. Chastened by this experience, the men vowed never to hunt the white hare again. The full story may be read at https://www.dorsetaonb.org.uk/the-white-hare/.
Philip Strange is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Reading. He writes about science and about nature with a particular focus on how science fits in to society. His work may be read at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/