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British hare ways

It was a beautiful mid-May morning, clear with a bit of a chill in the air but the promise of warmth later on, writes Richard Hollingum. We had left the car and were following the hedgerow along the valley bottom before turning with it up the hill. We were out to look for birds. So far we had noted chiff-chaff, blackbirds and skylarks and heard quite a lot of others in full voice. A short way up the rise, scanning the view with the binoculars I saw a brown shape, squat and shifting gently about. We walked a bit further up the hill and it was still there, just moving slowly over the ground, stopping to graze here and there.

Its size and its dark ears were clear indicators of what it was, but somehow I already knew. Hare. There is a sensation that starts when one comes into view, almost spine-tingling, a clear feeling that here is something special. I became mesmerised watching it, and then took up the camera thinking that as soon as I press the shutter it will run off. My finger went down and several times the shutter opened and closed in rapid succession. The hare continued to chew the grass.

I put the camera down and the hare moved a bit nearer, almost quartering this section of the field as he progressed through his meal. More photographs. I had not really thought how loud the shutter mechanism was on the camera until now but he seemed to be oblivious to it. I paused again but still no awareness from him about our proximity. He moved a bit further towards us, his clear brown eyes looking around but perhaps because we were stock still, or perhaps because we were in the shadow of the hedge whilst he was in the sunlight, he did not appear to register our presence.

After some minutes he had moved to within a few steps of us. The camera clicked and clattered. He stopped, looked up and then went back to the food. I let the camera down, my arms beginning to ache. I stretched my arms out a bit. This movement made him stop again and then that was it, off he went. Not running as a hare can run but clearly at enough of a pace to put himself at a safe distance. If we saw nothing else that day, I thought, I would go home very happy.

Another field is known locally as Hare Field. For many a walk I would follow the path on the other side of the ditch, my head turned to the left scouring the rising land to see a hare. Once – and once only – was I rewarded for this. Early one April morning, the warming sun lifting the heavy dew that sat upon the grass, I saw three brown shapes running across Hare Field. Every now and then one of them stopped, followed by the other two. As they all drew parallel to me – but a good 150 metres or more away – they stopped again and the middle one looked at the other two. As if a signal had been given, perhaps a dropped handkerchief, one of the outer pair approached the middle one and a boxing match commenced. Perhaps boxing match is not entirely the right description but it does sound a tad better than just a mad flailing of forelegs.

This, it transpired, was the female, in the middle, testing, or more likely fighting off an unwarranted suitor. After a bit of time, suitor number one retired to a safe distance and number two had a go. After this all three moved off again, stopped, had another round, and then continued. I never did get to see who won the heart of the fair maiden, but I also sympathised with the winner, who would henceforth never be able to put a foot wrong.

Perhaps a little bit fanciful but hares are creatures that readily lend themselves to anthropomorphising. They are also creatures of mystery and magic, and are much favoured by sketchers, card makers, mug manufacturers and the subject of many best selling books. Marianne Taylor’s The Way Of The Hare (2017) is a great introduction to the animal with chapters about the hare’s biology, their relationship with humankind, and the role the creature takes in the various mythologies of the world. The Running Hare (2016) by John Lewis-Stempel is an equally great book but fixes the hare as part of a quest – or as Lewis-Stempel refers to it, “an affair” – with a piece of land that is in dire need of having life put back into it, life that will support the growth of a crop and the joy of birds and animals that should naturally be part of that environment.

The hare seen in Northamptonshire is the Brown Hare, Lepus europaeus. It is the common type across England and is easily recognisable with its long black-tipped ears and its often zig-zag run.  They can live between two and four years and grow up to 70cm in length. Hares were introduced into these islands by the Romans, or possibly even before then, but are considered a naturalised species and are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Unlike rabbits hares do not live in burrows but instead have shallow scrapes or depressions in the ground called forms which allows them to stay out of sight but also run away quickly if threatened. There can be up to four litters a year, each litter perhaps having up to four leverets. Leverets are born ready to go. They are covered in fur, have their eyes open and, as Marianne Taylor says, they look like their parents “but rather cuter”. The mother will distribute the young in various places in order to reduce the risk of predation and whilst an adult will flee at the first sign of potential danger, leverets tend to freeze and wait for the danger to pass. Taylor makes the point that if you find a small hare, very still, possibly under a hedge, do not pick it up but move on. Its mother will know where it is and paying attention to it will only create more interest for any lurking predator.

The total population of the Brown Hare in the UK is about 800,000, the majority (over 500,000) in England. East Anglia has good populations whereas in some parts of the country, the hare is non-existent. In Northamptonshire, local populations are good enough for regular sightings. However, in October 2018, newspapers reported on the increase in the deaths of hares nationwide. Jonathan Davis from the Rural & Wildlife Crime Advisory Service (RaWCAS) says that whilst “hare die-off has been known about for many years, this sudden rise in numbers is a cause for concern”. At that time no substantial research had been done into why this was happening but  this has since resulted in a citizen science project coordinated by Professor Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia.

According to RaWCAS, several new pathogens have been found circulating in the Brown Hare population and one, RHDV2, was identified in January this year. RHDV2 is a variation of Rabbit haemorrhage disease, a highly infectious and fatal disease in rabbits that appears to have jumped species. Death normally occurs within 48 to 72 hours after infection. It is thought that RHDV2 may be a contributory factor to this sudden fall in hare population.

Davis explains that the citizen science project aims engage as many countryside users as possible to keep an eye out for any recently dead hares. This can be hard enough at the best of times as hares are very quickly scavenged: “Somehow a hare must die, remain un-scavenged and be physically spotted by a member of the public pretty soon after death.” Taking into account the fact that the person finding the hare must be aware of the project, and has the where-with-all to gather up the body, it is pretty remarkable that to date there have been nearly 1000 bodies reported.

If you find a hare that has recently died, you are asked, if possible, to collect it, take photographs, and make notes of the surrounding areas and environmental circumstances. When collecting the body, wear protective gloves, place it in a triple bag and take to your local vet for storage. Most vets will be accommodating if the research team is mentioned. When finding a dead hare, please contact either Professor Diana Bell, d.bell@uea.ac.uk or Jonathan Davis, rawcas@gmx.com

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