The traditional symbol of fertility and reproduction in some cultures, the inspiration for the English idiom ‘mad as a March hare’, and one of Alice’s most bizarre encounters in Wonderland, the European Brown Hare is possibly one of our shyest, most enigmatic countryside species. The sight of a Brown Hare, with its rich brown, almost reddish colouring, bounding with its strong rear legs through a tussocky meadow is truly one of nature’s most precious nature moments.
Sadly, this is perhaps an experience that future generations may not encounter. Over 80% of Britain’s iconic brown hare have disappeared. The national population was at around four million in the late 1800s, it is now down to about 800,000. The demise of the population can be credited largely to the loss of its habitat – mainly grasslands and low intensive arable fields and mixed farming.
Being generally nocturnal they are not a regular spectacle for the average rambler, but right now is the best time to maximise your chances of seeing one of these wonderful creatures at its very best and at their most endearing – during their spectacular Spring show.
So why are March hares thought to be mad? Well, a couple of reasons: Females have six-weekly reproductive cycles and are receptive to males for only a few hours in one day, so the competition for females among local bucks (males) is really intense. When the doe is ready to mate she starts a chase – well more of a long distance sprint really. Having secured the best position they can on the starter’s grid, males wanting to copulate with that one female must chase her around the countryside for as long as they can - basically running until all other competitors are worn out. Once the female has stopped running, the one remaining dominant male wins his prize. It’s literally the survival of the fittest.
And to dispel a long held myth - the term ‘boxing hares’ has previously believed to be males fighting males for the right to mate with the female, but actually it is the female boxing with a male whose attention is unwanted. Any male who oversteps the mark, or makes unwelcome advances before the doe’s time, gets thoroughly admonished for doing so, and in some cases the doe is so vicious she can leave scars on the ears of the male – it put a new perspective on the term getting ‘knocked back’.
There’s other rather admirable things about this wonderful animal - females can actually be pregnant twice, simultaneously – they can conceive the first litter whilst still pregnant with a first - and the leveretts are literally born ready for the world, fully furred and with eyes wide open, giving them instant tools with which to survive. When one considers one of their predators are birds of prey, it would seem that to have one’s eyes open from the off is a smart piece in their DNA tool-box. So when the leveretts sit in their ‘form’ – a shallow indentation in the vegetation the hare calls its home – waiting for its mother to bring food, they are able to take charge of their own safety in part.
If you want a mad March hare experience, then you must take a trip to Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Catcott Reserve Complex (a mile north of the village of Catcott), where you may be lucky enough to see one this Spring-time. Other sites include Lotts, Langford Heathfield and Bishopswood Meadows. Visit www.somersetwildlife.org for more information.
Picture: Don Sutherland