Seconds out! Round one! The annual boxing match is well underway as brown hares assemble - as is the tradition in the month of March - to indulge in the preliminaries to the breeding season. This is, of course, the time for Mad March Hares! And, it is a time when Jack and Jill did not so much go up the hill to fetch a pail of water so much as to decide instead to get down to the business of courtship. And that means boxing!
Jack hares indulge in little competitive scraps, which include some sparring, but the main pugilists are the female Jills. A Jill may be pursued vigorously by a number of competing Jacks but she will resist any attempt to mate with her until she knows she is ready. Then, and only then, will she submit. Meanwhile, the Jacks leap, sometimes over each other, in their excitement.
Until she is in a condition to drop her guard, the real boxing begins as each Jill takes on the persona of Nicola Adams and firmly repels the advances of the most dominant Jacks by giving them a lesson in the pugilistic arts. And this, believe me, is just round one, for as the year passes, hares will not mate just once but several times - three or four at least. Thus, a Jill hare may have as many as four litters in a single year. However, these initial, frenzied bouts of courtship seem heightened as spring fitfully advances and with little in the way of vegetation to give them cover and perhaps with the urge to procreate at its peak, their madness is now fully revealed.
Over the decades it has been my privilege to live in this airt, I have seen incredible changes in the local hare population. It has gone from a time when I could scarcely look out of my kitchen window and not see a hare lolloping past, to periods when hares seemed almost to have disappeared altogether. Indeed, I well remember local hare shoots in which there were so many guns going off that it sounded as if the third world war had started. It was a wonder that no one was killed and the poor old hares had to run a pretty chastening gauntlet!
Now thankfully, after a period in which hares had become real rarities, there seems to be a slowly rising population of the lowland-living brown hare hereabouts. Yet the fact is that hares have always found themselves high on the list of targets for I guess that down the centuries, folk wielding spears, bows and arrows and latterly, guns, not to mention those who used to hunt hares with dogs, all viewed hares as 'fair game'.
Indeed, the hare has always been regarded as one of our 'big five' quarries along with the hind, the hart, the boar and the wolf. The wolf is gone, although there are those who would like it restored and the wild boar was also exterminated, albeit that there is now in Britain a substantial population of them again thanks to escapees from 'wild boar farms' and from estates where they have been introduced for sport.
Judging by the work of some of mankind's earlies artists, whilst clearly seen as a source of food and pelts and therefore being a regular target for the huntsman, the hare seemingly also commanded deep respect because of its supreme field-craft. In Grecian, Iranian and African folklore, it is regarded as more astute and cunning than even the fox! And the hare is actually the 'Brer Rabbit' of American folklore, its reputation travelling to America with the slaves transported from West Africa.
Hares assimilate and accumulate an intimate knowledge of their territory in such detail that they know every possible escape route such as the whereabouts of gaps or holes in hedgerows and fences which afford them the opportunity to evade any pursuing predator.
For the most part, hares tend to lie up during daylight hours, huddled up in the 'forms' - shallow depressions that they create - in which circumstances they often resemble molehills. If disturbed after sitting tight, a hare may emerge to show itself, initially without undue haste or alarm. However, when pursued, say by a dog, the animal will soon stretch its legs impressively. It is also capable of 'turning on a sixpence', changing direction abruptly, leaving a pursue baffled and straining to halt and then adjust to its headlong charge.
It is my understanding that the brown hare populated these islands before the last Great Ice Age but probably retreated to Continental Europe as the ice spread to cover much of Britain. When Britain became an island as the ice melted and sea levels rose, the opportunity for them to return was denied them. Thus, the only true native hare in Britain is said to be the mountain variety, often referred to as the 'blue hare'.
However, the writings of Julius Caesar around 54BC, tell us that brown hares were kept as pets by the Britons, residing in enclosures called leporaria and looked after by keepers who could summon them by blowing special horns! It may be presumed that these captive hares might be the ancestors of our current hare population for there is little doubt that such enclosures would not be entirely hare-proof and not too difficult to escape from. The remains of high-walled hare enclosures dating from Tudor times have also been discovered.
Yet despite the respect accorded to hares by our ancient ancestors, another tradition encouraged the hunting of hares because they were alleged to be witches which it was believed, could transmogrify themselves into hares. Apart from the speed a hare is able to generate, with its eyes set on the sides of its head to give it virtually an around the compass field of vision, it is also exceptionally well equipped to spot potential predators. However, old time poachers detected a weakness in a hare's vision which suggested that whilst it can see behind and to the side, its vision straight ahead is not so good. To catch a hare then, the advice was to approach it from the front!
However, courting Jack hares seem to be able to see forward well enough as they pursue the apple of their eye, a Jill. Indeed such is their fixation that you may, at this time of the year, see several of them following in the wake of such a Jill. At times it seems they are accordingly completely oblivious to any human presence, all utterly dedicated and entirely focussed on an eventual outcome, which it is likely, only one of them may enjoy!
Spring fever at last and not before time!