Now is the time when we think of Mad March Hares: seeing the animals chasing around in a field, jumping over each other and “boxing”. This behaviour, which is actually not restricted to this month, is all about courtship or partly, the refusal of courtship. Male hares – bucks - are more numerous, so females – does - that are unreceptive to amorous mates may vigorously fight them off. A female leading a potential mate on a chase across a field may be testing his speed so she can select the fastest male to father her offspring. She can produce three or four broods of young a year. These are called leverets and are born fully furred and ready to run. They will keep themselves hidden during the day returning to the doe at sunset for a daily feed and are weaned in a month.
Brown hares are preyed upon by foxes, stoats and buzzards but also subject to poaching and illegal hare coursing. They do not burrow like rabbits but live above ground and so rely on their speed to evade predators and escape to cover. They are the fastest British land mammal and can reach 40 mph at full pelt. Its long back legs provide this speed and results in a distinctive loping gait very different to that of the rabbit which is about half the size and weight. Rabbits have black eyes, very different to those of the hare which are a wonderful amber. Its ears are much longer than the rabbit with distinct black tips. Their fur is golden brown with a white belly. The other hare seen in the mainland UK is the mountain or blue hare which is mainly found on Scottish heather moorlands.
The best time to see Hares is early or late in the day. During the day they may lie up in a depression on the ground called a form. They will sit tight when approached before hurtling off at the last moment, often stopping after a while to look back then loping off at a more sedate pace. If you are lucky enough to spot them before they speed off, you can have a staring match and see how inconspicuous they make themselves, hunkered down with their ears lying along their back.
You are most likely to see them in arable farmland and wide-open grasslands, woodland edges and hedgerows – places which provide shelter. So they benefit from a mixed agricultural landscape rather than one devoted to a single crop. The downs along the Shaston Ridge and the arable fields adjacent are a favourite place to see them and they can be seen in vicinity of Tisbury although dogs running off leads scare them away before most people see them.
Unfortunately, hare’s numbers are estimated to have declined by 80% in the last 100 years. Some are now suffering from rabbit haemorrhagic disease which further threatens them. We are fortunate to still have these beautiful animals in the countryside around us.
by Andrew Graham
Photo: Avocets (Izzy Fry)
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