20 March 2010


A Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer (1502)

April is still ten days away, but out there, across the broad expanse of dark-brown furrows, the air is already shimmering with heat. Seen from this low angle, from this quiet vantage place beside the hawthorn hedge, the heat haze seems concentrated and condensed; the white geodesic dome of the Chenies weather-radar looks misshapen and wobbling on the shaky substance of its tower.

The air is filled with the song of many skylarks, and from the asterisked lines of barbed wire by the bridle path come, over and over again, the same jangled notes of a corn bunting. A thrush is singing, and just now a woodpecker drummed from the direction of Baldwin’s Wood, but otherwise the place seems devoid of life. The fields here are too open, the hedgerows too sparse. The arable is a desert, a harsh and unpromising place for wild creatures.

Earlier this morning, though, when the sky was still grey with dawn and the light was only just good enough for the human eye to perceive detail, these same furrows were the scene of a prolonged and spectacular contest. Two buck hares, mad March hares, were fighting, either for territory, or for possession of a doe which remained unseen and, more than likely, indifferent to the outcome.

The contest, or ritual, was enacted as a chase in which the two hares displayed to the full their agility and powers of running, dashing across the clods, the subordinate animal doing most of the giving way. Occasionally, however, it mastered its timidity and stood its ground, rearing up on hind legs at the approach of its antagonist. Often as not it would think better of this tactic and again resume running, but once or twice it held firm and a few rather ineffectual sideswipes were exchanged.

These boxing matches are seldom seen nowadays. Changes in land use and farming methods have made the hare very scarce. Once it was a common animal, a feature of all landscapes such as this. It was included in the traditional list of the five beasts of the chase – the Hart, Hind, Hare, Boar, and Wolf – and occupied an important place in the tradition and lore of the countryside.

Nevertheless, for such a large animal (it can weigh upwards of seven pounds and is considerably bigger than its relative, the rabbit), the hare is adept at keeping a low profile. It can remain unsuspected in a district for many years, known only to those who are out and about at dawn and dusk, when hares are chiefly active, or who are lucky enough to glimpse one at some other time or find its traces.

This stretch between Flaunden and Chenies remains ideal hare country, with a fair amount of open and semi-permanent pasture, arable land, and a substantial amount of woodland, for the hare is just as much at home under the trees as it is in the open. Formerly there was a small but constant population of hares on the golf-course and in the adjoining Whippendell Wood at Watford, but human disturbance there is now too great and all but a few have gone.

The hare’s main requirement, besides a supply of food, is a quiet, safe place where it can lie up during the day. Such a place is called a form and is usually a mere depression in the turf, preferably with overhanging grass stems or other vegetation to keep the hare out of sight. One hare may have many such forms in a small area, and when flushed from one will run to another to hide.

It is usually very difficult to flush a hare from its form, and it will remain there until the last moment, almost until you tread on it. Like most vegetarians of its size, it relies on being overlooked by predators. The eyes are so placed that it sees better to the rear than to the front; the eyes themselves are large and efficient and designed to give early warning of danger. Together with a very acute sense of smell and sensitive hearing which is enhanced by the large and controllable external ears, the eyesight makes it all but impossible to approach a hare undetected. You can be sure that if you can see the hare, the hare has long ago known all about you.

Once it does start running, the hare can cover the ground at up to thirty miles an hour, making short work of rough terrain. For preference it will run uphill, to get the best from those long hind legs. It is an able swimmer and will not hesitate to cross even quite wide rivers.

Unlike the young of the burrow-nesting rabbit, the newbom leverets are fully clothed and can see almost immediately. Two to five in number, the brood is placed in a special form by the mother and left alone while she goes off to feed; she suckles them at night.

Waiting here at the edge of the field, it seems that the hares are not going to reappear today. The bucks are in their forms, and so is the doe. Perhaps she is already pregnant, and, as you start for home at last, you wonder whether there will be leverets again this spring in the same place by the edge of the wood, where the grass is sweet and tussocky, under the resinous young branches of the Scots pines. As long as there are, all is not lost for our countryside.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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