I loved to see hares when I lived in Norfolk but it is a disappointment that they are not on my farm here in Llanddeusant- I am between 2 small rivers, and there are hares in the parish where the fields abutt the mountain or the moor.
The landscape has changed here so much within the last 100 years. The rough wet fields are abandoned to woodland as are the valleys, the mills in ruins. The secondary woodland on the abandoned land is boggy and the understory of brambles is impenetrable. So the hares are no longer found here on my finger of hill as they require large areas of open grassland with some longer grass to make their ‘form’ for concealment as they do not make burrows.
The north slope of this valley used to be open ‘furze’ all the way to the mountain. I like to imagine the hares once thriving there, the ‘furze’ like the skirt of St Melangell, concealing the hare.
Local to the parish of Pennant Melangell in Powys hares used to be called called ‘Melangell’s lambs’. Melangell was a feisty virgin who lived as a hermitess, having escaped a forced marriage as daughter of an Irish king. She gave protection to a hare hunted by Prince Brochwel’s hounds beneath her skirt. Her feast day was originally established in 590 AD and is celebrated on the 27th of May.
The hare has been important in myth and personally to individuals over the centuries. One of the most beautiful portraits ever painted of the hare is by Albrecht Durer in 1502, ‘Young Hare’. This is easily found on the web, the original at Albertina in Vienna.
A poem by Robert Burns entitiled ‘On seeing a hare limp by me which a fellow had just shot at’ mourned the loss of the hare he had enjoyed watching on his dewy lawn while he mused, and of the shooter ‘May never pity sooth thee with a sigh Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart’.
Another poet William Cowper also loved hares and befriended at least two. In his poem ‘The Garden’ he wrote ‘Well one at least is safe. One sheltered hare has never heard the sanguinary yell of cruel man, exhulting in her woes’.
If one looks up the hare on Wikipedia a considerable portion of the article is taken up with recipes to cook hare- though it is remarked that hare is not famine food as there is no fat on a hare unlike a rabbit.
I hope the appetite for hunting hares is diminishing as it becomes important to conserve them as their numbers fall. It is a beautiful and exciting animal. It is distinctive with black tips to its ears that in the brown hare are longer than the rabbits.
It has an extraordinary turn of speed and can run as fast as 45 mph. Its heart is very much larger than that of the rabbit and its hind legs long and very strong. I once was present at a falconry display where a Harris hawk flew and preyed upon a hare (to my horror, though natural to the hawk). The hare jumped up in the air as the hawk clasped it and the leap took them both about 20 feet from the ground. The necessity for hares to have cover from birds of prey, and man’s predation, if they are to be conserved is dependant upon the right habitat to afford them cover and concealment.
The brown hare, Lepus europaeus and the mountain hare, Lepus timidusare both found in Britain. The mountain hare recolonised after the melting of the ice some 10,000 years ago as vegetation moved north to grow on ground once covered with ice sheets. A subspecies is to be found in Ireland that is genetically closer to the mountain hare of the Iberian Peninsula moving northwards earlier, whereas that in Scotland is closer to those of Scandinavia and Russia.
The brown hare was brought to Britain perhaps by the Romans as a game animal and is well adapted to agriculture- that is until modern agricultural practice since the 2nd World War. Personally I also wonder if the sheep netting universally used in Wales affects the free movement of the hare, as well as the short sheep grazed grass and the early silage cuts.
Both species of hare change their colour in winter, the mountain hare becoming almost white (the staple food of the golden eagle) and the brown hare somewhat dull and grey in the winter. Both grow a brighter brown summer coat.
The boxing hare is said to be the female holding off over eager suitors before she is ready to be mated (as feisty as St Melangell!).
The baby hare or leveret is born with fur and open eyes and spends its day lying up by itself in the open, hidden in a ‘form’, a depression in long grass. The mother returns to feed it. The hare is most active in the evening and at night, though I have seen them during the day.
There is no need to run over a hare on the road, just be patient as it lopes along to find its place to leave the road such as beneath a gate. As John Clare wrote in his poem Hares at Play, ‘Through well-known paths each nimbling hare Sturts quick as fear, and seeks its hidden lair’.