Let’s hear it for hares

Havergate Hare

Havergate Hare - Credit: Archant

Andrew Fallan shares his expertise in Essex wildlife with us, revealing top locations to find special species as well as unsusual animals you can discover in your own back garden

Running Hares

Running Hares - Credit: Archant

With its long, black-tipped ears and proud athletic physique, its chiselled features, blazing amber eyes and gorgeously grizzled coat, the brown hare is undoubtedly one of the UK’s most beautiful, most charismatic and most iconic wild animals. Unbeknown to many, it is also our fastest land mammal, reaching speeds of up to 45mph and capable of running a 100m sprint in a mere five seconds — that’s almost twice as fast as current world record holder, Usain Bolt! And with a rich history of folklore trailing in its wake, clinging to every turn and jink as it races across the open countryside, it’s also fair to say that this wonderful creature is part of the very fabric of these isles.

Unlike rabbits, hares live their entire lives above ground, their only protection — together with the cover of grasses and crops — being a small, shallow scrape in the ground known as a ‘form’. Relying on keen senses and their remarkable speed to escape from predators, these long-eared, long-limbed denizens of field and farmland are therefore quite at home amid Britain’s eastern arable landscapes, with the lush rural flatlands of East Anglia — which, of course, includes parts of Essex — providing a particular stronghold.

Hares are best known for providing us with one of nature’s great spectacles. Although usually solitary, they will sometimes come together in pairs or small groups, whereupon, as if in response to some deep inner stirring, the mayhem begins.

Amid a flurry of madcap chasing and scurrying, two or more individuals will square up to each other on hind legs and, in a frenzy of fur-tufts and flailing paws, start to ‘box’, often quite viciously. Once thought to be frisky males competing for the attentions of the female, these feverish bouts are in fact the result of a reluctant female, also known rather colourfully as a ‘Jill’, fighting off the amorous advances of any number of males, also known as ‘Jacks’.

Contrary to popular belief, such boxing is not limited to spring but actually occurs all year round. However, the notion of the Mad March Hare is not entirely without foundation, as their celebrated fisticuffs do reach a climax in March. At this time of year, crops are also likely to be relatively low to the ground, rendering the hares more conspicuous to the human eye.

Although having undoubtedly found their way into the nation’s affections, these charismatic creatures are, unfortunately, under serious threat, joining the ranks of some of our most beleaguered species. The overall number of brown hares has fallen by more than 80% over the last 100 years, with agricultural intensification a major factor in their dramatic decline, while in some parts of the UK they may even have disappeared altogether.

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As a so-called game animal that can also damage crops, hares have scant legal protection. They are also the only British game species without a shooting ‘close season’, meaning they can be legally killed at all times of the year. Quite remarkably, large shoots in East Anglia during late winter and early spring can account for numbers that equate to around 40% of the national population. The species as a whole may be able to recover from these huge losses, but there are significant welfare implications for such an early breeder, with the young, known as leverets, left to starve. Many hares, which have a habit of lying low when threatened, also fall victim to farm machinery and pesticides.

In addition to the above, the hare’s speed, agility and split-second manoeuvrability make it an ideal target for the illegal ‘sport’ of hare coursing. With bets placed, two dogs, usually lurchers or greyhounds, are set upon a fleeing hare, which, if caught, may end up in the jaws of both dogs as they fight over their struggling quarry in a horribly cruel tug of war. Although thankfully now banned by law, there is a serious threat to the legal status quo in the form of concerted efforts by some to repeal the Hunting Act, which, if successful, would see a return of hare coursing as well as the hunting of both foxes and deer with hounds.

So, as well as sparing a thought for the threats and hardships that they sadly face, next time you’re out and about amid the fields and farmland of Essex, keep your eyes peeled for that most British of mammals, the endlessly alluring brown hare. Who knows, with a bit of patience you may even be lucky enough to witness one of our most celebrated, most treasured and most spellbinding wildlife spectacles — one that will hopefully be a feature of our countryside for generations to come. n