A low white sun, and an icy-blue sky. It’s early-morning, and I flipped the calendar to March just yesterday. I’m walking a bridleway that butts up against a field in rural Suffolk. The stubby green crop opens up like a greased centre parting to my right, and my eyes lock with a familiar character. Against the dry dirt, two orange marbles float in mid-air. Moments later, a white flash hurtles away from me and I breathe again.
It was years later I started to see brown hares for longer than a few moments, “boxing” in a field at RSPB Dungeness. Dragging myself out of bed to check anti-predator fencing had few perks, but the morning scrap and a flushed bittern or two made it worthwhile – most of the time. Before spending time to get to know this charismatic mammal, I’d feel I was stumbling across something I shouldn’t every time I turned a corner and met a one face-to-face.
Enjoying the Sunset by Andy Howard (Photo courtesy of BWPA, andyhoward.co.uk)
Brown hares are fascinating to watch. They have that great combination of elusive when you’re looking for them, and surprising you when you least expect it. March is the absolute best time to start looking for hares – or if my experience is anything to go on, not looking and just getting lucky.
Early morning is a good bet. Brown hares are fairly common and widespread across much of the UK, apart from places where their mountain hare cousins do it better, such as the Scottish Highlands and the Peak District. Look for expanses of arable land that’s got some scrubby bits, or natural areas of grassland where there’s space to run. Hares live entirely above ground, taking cover in shallow scrapes called “forms”. They eat grass, roots, crops and fungi, and herbs in the summer. You’ll often see individuals legging-it in the daytime if they’ve been disturbed, or ears-pricked in a field. In March, however, they all go a bit mad.
Let’s have a closer look at this little speed demon.
Speedy escapes and duck-and-cover
Asparagus Camouflage by Sarah Darnell (Photo courtesy of BWPA, sarahdarnell.photography)
Hares are built for power. You’ll notice they’re significantly bigger and more athletic looking than rabbits, and the speed at which they can run reflects this. Hares have been clocked at 45 mph, which puts them somewhere in the top 10 of the world’s fastest land mammals. Running is one way to escape, but hiding is another, and hares will often duck and flatten themselves into a scrape to avoid detection or predation. Some have been documented missing the tips of their ears having held their ground as a combine harvester chomps overhead – they just weren’t quite low enough.
Them’s fightin’ words
Boys will be boys, right? But so will girls, and the quintessential “boxing hare” fights are actually taking place between a male and female. Female hares will fight off unwanted attention, or just give the fella a hard time to see if he’s got the grit and determination she’s looking for from a mate. I’ve seen fights against a sunrise backdrop where the entire group of hares seems to have formed into a circle around a scrap. The silhouette showdown seems eerily coordinated for animals that typically spend most of their time in relative solidarity, but it’s immensely entertaining even with just a couple of individuals in the ring.
Very Mad March Hares by Cate Barrow (Photo courtesy of BWPA, catebarrow.co.uk)
Several bouts can take place, with hares entering a slugfest. Gloveless paw after paw wails on the opponent, and every punch is met with a reply. It can literally look like they’re knocking the stuffing out of each other, as clumps of fur are lost to the wind. Mating happens from February through to September and a female can have up to 4 or so litters, but the pay-per-view matches begin in March so get out while you can to catch this spectacle.
Hush little leveret
New born hares are called leverets, and unlike rabbits who are born pink and a little bit like an iced bun, they’re born fully furred, eyes open and ready to run. But their mother has different ideas for keeping them safe. Leverets will sit tight all day, hidden from sight in a form. The mother will return to them every evening for about a month, and they’ll gather for their nightly meal. This helps keep them safe from their primary predator, foxes, by separating them to avoid an entire litter catastrophe.
Northern cousins and those golden show-offs
To the north resides the UK’s only native species of lagomorph (hares and rabbits), the mountain hare. Brown hares and rabbits were introduced to the UK by humans, but this shorter eared, cold weather specialist has been chilling in boreal forests and the UK’s Scottish Highlands all along. Depending on the temperature, mountain hares will change their fur coat to white to match the snow. If it isn’t quite cold enough, they’ll look patchy, which I think is particularly stylish.
Alert by Tesni Ward (Photo courtesy of BWPA, tesniward.co.uk)
Did you notice the handsome blonde on the cover of your spring issue of Nature’s Home magazine? Golden hares are descended from mountain hares, and have a stronghold on Northern Ireland’s Raithlin Island, on which is a fantastic RSPB reserve. If you’re in the area, have a look for a bit of gold.
Are you feeling like spring is here? Hares are. Amidst the dawn chorus and flurry of spring flower colours, take a bit of time to enjoy an iconic UK mammal. Just don’t go about emulating them!
The British Wildlife Photography Awards (BWPA) is now accepting submissions. Go to the BWPA website to find out more.