Keeping an eye on the hares of Borley Hill

Spring is the best time to see hares as they gather in fields and prepare to box and mate.

Words: Ross Bentley Pictures: Sue Alderman

I have been watching the hare fields all winter.

I have passed them often on my bike during lockdown exercise through the west Suffolk countryside. They tend to spread out across a field near where I live. It is a good place to stop for a breather, get out my binoculars and keep tabs on the long-eared mammals a few hundred yards in the distance.

Unlike rabbits, brown hares do not live underground in burrows but spend all year above ground, hunkered down against the elements in small indents they have made in the soil that are known as forms.

During the colder months when the weather is bleak, they seem to spend all day crouched close to the terrain and from far away resemble clumps of earth.

Even when the snow came and the redwings and fieldfares foraged the field margins, the hares could be seen. And as the temperatures rose and the fields grew greener, the hares became livelier: some congregated in small groups, others ran in unison, their numbers swelling to a point when one day I counted 50 spread across one field. I wondered whether they knew I was watching them and what I would do if they all turned round and stared back at me at the same time.

Hares are known for their wild stare

Run

Run like a hare is probably what I would have done, because there is something unnerving about Lepus europaeus.

We have tamed rabbits, but hares remain unpredictable and feral. Very rarely can you get close enough to see the hare’s infamous wild stare. On one of my cycling sojourns, a large hare loped out onto the country lane in front of me. We both froze but the hare did not turn its head towards me because like all hunted animals, its eyes are on the side of its head, so it can see danger coming.

The effect was of a cold and seemingly disinterested animal, its thoughts elsewhere. After a few seconds, the hare stepped off the road before pushing its muscular hind legs against the ground and speeding off in a blur of limbs and dust like a cartoon character.

When discussing hares, their fleet of foot is often mentioned. They are the Usain Bolts of our wildlife, able to reach speeds of 40mph. Even when they are cantering, resembling miniature greyhounds, a distant observer can feel the coiled power in a hare’s effortless gait, which can be switched to hyperdrive in an instant.

Prey

It is the hare’s lot to be a prey species in the food chain and they need their speed and oversized ears to detect and escape from predators such as foxes and stoats. Birds of prey and crows are also a danger, but they tend to target their young, known as leverets.

It is no wonder hares are skittish and prone to flight, as from day one they are alone and vulnerable. Leverets are born above ground in half concealed nests, their mother virtually absent, visiting only once a day to swiftly nurse them, so as not to alert predators to their location. Hare’s milk is said to be among the richest of all mammals, and the young grow rapidly and are generally weaned in about a month.

A great trivia fact is that hares and rabbits are not rodents but, in fact lagomorphs (meaning “hare-shaped”). What sets them apart is a second pair of incisors behind their main pair. Another characteristic of lagomorphs is they produce both hard and soft droppings. The soft ones are re-ingested to make sure maximum nutrition is gleaned from their diet of grasses, herbs and field crops.

Hotspot

According to Sue Alderman, from the Hare Preservation Trust, East Anglia is a hotspot for hares who thrive in our agricultural landscape.

“They don’t do too well in the west of the country where there is more livestock because hares don’t like to share a field with grazing animals,” she said.

But, even here, in the relative abundance of the East, hare numbers are down compared with a century and half ago.

Sue tells me that in the 1880s, it was estimated there were 4million hares in the UK, compared to 750,000 today. It is thought that this 80% drop in numbers was mainly due to changes in agricultural practice, which has reduced crop diversity and increased the use of weedkillers. New diseases, shooting and overdevelopment are other threats faced by hares in the 21st century.

Witchcraft

But it is not just modern wildlife enthusiasts like me who are drawn to the hare. Down the ages, hares have been imbued with special powers.  Country lore has painted hares as shapeshifters, and symbols of fertility and witchcraft. They are said to stare at the moon, be prone to madness in March and have been known to throw themselves on fires…or so the myths go.

Another habit that adds to their legend is hares’ propensity to box each other during the mating season. This strange pugilism is not typically sparked by male hares competing for dominance, but usually down to larger females fending off the unwanted advances of a male.

I had never seen this phenomenon and was hoping that my regular vigils would bring their reward.

It came in late February as I was standing at my hare lookout. I looked across and on the brow of a hill, silhouetted against the low sun, two hares facing each other suddenly exploded into vertical combat.

On tippy toe, they were stretched out and elongated. And huge. To call it boxing was a bit of an embellishment. It seemed to me more of a high tempo slapping competition that went on for maybe twenty seconds, but it was incredibly thrilling nonetheless….and a little bit magic.

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of the Suffolk Magazine.

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