She clearly had not a care in the world. That was certainly the impression I got as I watched puss conduct her ablutions not fifteen yards away from my kitchen window. As she diligently washed her face using her front paws as any cat might do, she seemed utterly unconcerned that she was conducting her toiletry so close to human habitation. Ostensibly at least, she had no cause for concern and was a picture of relaxation. Puss, of course, is a colloquialism for a brown hare, a name by which it is known to country folk in many parts of Britain.
Nevertheless, relaxed though she seemed, it was evident throughout that her ears were constantly twitching and revolving so that she would instantly hear any alien sounds. Twitching continuously also, was her nose. Hares, used to being the hunted rather than hunters, have an in-built sensory system that is second to none. Furthermore, her eyes are set on the side of her head so that her vision must be close to 360 degrees round the compass. Indeed, the one chink in the hare’s armour apparently is that it does not see as well to the front as it does to the sides and to the rear. Therefore, my understanding is that if you want to approach a hare, you will be more successful if you approach it from the front.
Hares are special. Our ancient hunter gatherer ancestors revered the hare for its exceptional field-craft and they would know all about that, having to rely upon their own hunting skills in order to survive. Hares very quickly digest every detail of every square inch of the physical nature of the territory in which they live. In other words, they know every escape route, every gap in the hedges, every hole in the fences and exactly where to head when threatened or chased. They are the epitome of animals which survive entirely on their wits and accumulated knowledge.
Her toiletry completed, she moved on – unhurried and almost casually as she loped slowly down the paddock, squeezed under the wire and sauntered on into the next field. Her amble continued until at last she had disappeared over the brow of the hill. Throughout she progressed with an air of utter confidence and I could detect not an ounce of trepidation in her. I got the feeling that she knew, whatever she might encounter, fox or dog for instance, she could both outrun it and indeed outwit it! I share that admiration our ancestors had for hares!
Many years ago, I had a borzoi – a Russian wolf-hound - as a canine companion. Once she got wound-up, her speed was so electrifyingly fast it was enough to outrun even a fleet-footed hare. On several occasions, when out for a walk, we would disturb a hare resting in its form and thus resembling a mole-hill! It is surprising how close you can get to such an animal before it will eventually move. Inevitably, the borzoi would pick up the scent and make a bee-line for the resting hare. Almost always, the hare would finally move, not necessarily with the initial urgency you might expect, before, as the dog got nearer it would suddenly get properly into its stride.
Such was the speed of the dog however, that the distance between them would get shorter and shorter at which point the hare would suddenly veer in another direction, sometimes it seemed, at 90 degrees. The dog, totally unable to turn like the hare, would hurtle hopelessly onward, tail winding frantically as she vainly tried to apply the brakes. Meanwhile, the hare having changed direction and being well aware of the dog’s inability to stop or turn, would amble casually towards a weel kent gap in a hedge or fence and simply disappear. Meanwhile, the dog having eventually managed to halt her headlong charge, would return to the point where the hare had veered away, casting futilely around for its lost quarry - now fully a field away. The dog never had a chance!
Mankind has always had a special place in his heart for hares, not just in this country but across the globe. In far away countries such as China for instance, they do not refer to the ‘man in the moon’. Rather do they call it ‘the hare in the moon’! The moon is, of course, a symbol of immortality appearing as it does on a monthly basis, growing from the crescent into the full moon and then reducing until it disappears entirely. Of course, three days later there follows another new moon – a kind of resurrection. The same basic belief can be found in the myth and folklore of India, Egypt, Africa, Mexico, North America and indeed in Europe.
Furthermore, all of these cultures associate the hare with the moon. Granted the hare is, to a great extent, nocturnal in its habits. And because our ancient ancestors were much more conscious of their environment than us, they would have been very aware of the increased level of activity of hares in moonlight. Their observations of the erratic behaviour of hares, especially in the spring, when these apparently timid creatures throw off all caution and cavort so blatantly, would have further sealed the image of the hare and its association with moonlit nights. Their observations of hares leaping, standing up and boxing, simply running riot and appearing as if from nowhere, inexorably linked them with the constantly changing phases of the moon and its differing stations in the sky. To the ancients, mad March hares were simply moon-struck!
The activities of mad March hares are easy to observe in a landscape in which the growth of vegetation has hardly begun. Besides which, as previously said, they do seem to throw off their usual cloak of timidity. Yet brown hares do not restrict their re-productive activities to March for they will, as the year progresses, go on to produce further litters of young, even as many as four. This week, I have seen leverets, possibly the second family of the year. Unlike rabbit kits, leverets are born fully furred with their eyes open and are soon upwardly mobile. However, hares are dedicated mothers separating their leverets – usually around four in number - and depositing them in ‘forms’ –little depressions in the ground. She will visit each in turn to suckle them. I well remember watching one such Jill hare quite firmly box the nose of a cow that got too close to one of her hidden leverets. Indeed, I have also heard stories of Jill hares kicking and with their powerful rear legs, even killing stoats that were threatening her young.
Over the years, hare numbers hereabouts have fluctuated wildly. Years ago, they were so numerous that regular hare-shoots were held and I could not look out of my kitchen window and fail to see one. However, their numbers began to fall and indeed, for a time they were seldom seen. Happily, their numbers do now appear to be recovering although I do know that from time to time, there are those who still go hare-coursing with greyhounds despite it being illegal.
In his account of his life in Britain, Julius Caesar wrote that it was at that time a custom of the Ancient Brits to keep hares as pets in enclosures called leporaria. Caesar reported that the captive hares were looked after and fed by a keeper who could apparently call them to him by blowing a special horn! Of course, hares are ardent re-cyclers for they eat their more moist droppings in order to extract all the nutrients from their food. This is why their flesh is forbidden to Jews and Muslims who mistakenly believe they chew the cud and are therefore considered to be unclean. Doubtless, if they knew the truth, they would be doubly against the consumption of hares!