Leaping Beauty

PUBLISHED: 12:28 06 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

Brown Hares squaring up photo Darin Smith

Brown Hares squaring up photo Darin Smith

Melanie Vincent of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust takes a look at the brown hare, one of Wiltshire's most charismatic mammals.

Whether sitting upright in the middle of a field, with the early morning sun catching its lush chest fur, or gallantly evading a fast-approaching predator, the brown hare cuts a majestic figure, and is a sight that few other wildlife encounters in the British countryside can match for sheer energy and beauty. If you have not yet had the privilege of witnessing this species in the wild, then waste no time. Although present all year round, February and March are the best months to see them because it's the height of their breeding season and a good opportunity to see the 'mad March hare' behaviour that popularly characterises the species. This 'madness' involves rapid pursuits, where a dominant male chases away love rivals in an attempt to protect his chosen female, and 'boxing' matches in which an unreceptive female fights off the unwelcome advances of a male or group of males. Standing on her hind legs she will punch and kick her opponent in what is more kick-boxing than traditional boxing. The mating season runs from February to August, but now is a good time to see this courting behaviour as the growing crops are not yet tall enough to conceal all the action in the field.

Brown hares are mostly found in open countryside, grassland and farmland, and so are widespread across Wiltshire. A stronghold is Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Blakehill Nature Reserve, near Cricklade, a former RAF airfield and now the site of one of the UK's largest hay meadow restoration projects. According to the County Recorder for Mammals, Mark Satinet, other good places to see them are on Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs.

Brown hares belong to the same family as rabbits - Lagamorpha - and on first glance they may look very similar, but a closer look will reveal some clear differences. Brown hares are much larger than rabbits and have a more athletic build; they have powerful hind legs that allow them to reach speeds of up to 45mph. They also have an incredible ability to change direction in a flash, enabling adults to outmanoeuvre their predators by running in a zig-zag fashion. "If you give a hare a head start of 50ft, they can easily outrun a fox," says Mark. "That's why they like to be in the middle of a field. They tend to be more vulnerable in small fields with hedges."

Other distinguishing features include long, black-tipped ears and a rich, reddish-brown fur coat. They leap instead of hop, live above ground rather than in burrows, and are mainly solitary creatures that tend to congregate only during the breeding season. The small depressions in which they live above ground are called 'forms'. These shallow shapes are dug out near hedges, scrub or ploughed furrows. Although seemingly completely exposed to the elements, when snuggled down, with their ears lying flat across their back, these depressions afford them shelter from the wind and rain, and camouflage from predators.

Hares spend most of the day in their form, where they remain still but always on guard, reputedly only entering deep sleep for one minute a day. In the evening, they'll leave their form in search of food, feeding on grasses, crops and herbs, as well as twigs, buds and tree bark. An unusual habit is eating their own droppings. They tend to eat the soft faeces they produce during the day in order to extract every last bit of nutrition; at night they produce harder faeces which they leave alone.

Females can rear up to four litters a year, each with two to four young, known as leverets. Unlike newborn rabbits, leverets are born in the open, with fur and open eyes. Soon after birth they are moved by their mother and each one is placed in an individual form, where they'll be left alone during the day. At dusk, the mother will feed her young and will continue to do so for a month, after which they will be left to fend for themselves. Although well camouflaged in their forms, leverets are easy targets for foxes and birds of prey.

Numbers of hares have been in decline for some time, and it is believed that only 20% of the number from 100 years ago are left today. Because of this decline, brown hares have been classified as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species, which means that specific action is being taken to reverse this trend. A number of factors are responsible for this. Modern farming practices tend to be more intensive and specialised than a century ago. Traditional hay meadows - which have almost completely disappeared since the mid-1940s - provided food all year round and a crop tall enough to hide in. Today, fields with a single crop of cereal provide little food for hares in late summer and autumn, and farms rearing livestock for meat or dairy products may offer few suitable places for cover, especially if they lack hedges or copses.There are government incentives to help farmers improve their land for the benefit of wildlife, and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, through its Landscapes for Wildlife project, can offer advice on what to do and how to access the funding available. The project aims to link areas of species-rich grassland in the old royal hunting forest of Braydon, by restoring wildflower meadows, laying hedges and planting trees. One way of gauging the success of this project involves monitoring seven UK BAP species, one of which is the brown hare. Following a wildlife survey that was sent to all farms involved in the project, it's clear that brown hares occur across the project area, with three-quarters of respondents saying that they had hares on their land. An unexpected and interesting find was that hares were spotted on small-sized fields.

The Trust's project officer, Paul Darby, says: "The experience we have is that most farmers enjoy seeing hares on their land. Although they may be considered a pest in some parts of the country, in Wiltshire they are in sufficiently low numbers that they are not seen as a problem. Farmers who want to see more hares on their land are offered advice on how to create a greater variety of habitats so that hares have plenty of places to feed, rest, shelter and protect their young. It's an uplifting experience to see a brown hare - and a wonderful feeling to know that they are around and doing well in our county."

Unfortunately, the species has little legal protection. They have been hunted by man for centuries for both meat and sport. The only bit of legislation afforded them is the Hares Preservation Act 1892 which prohibits the sale of hares or leverets between 1 March and 31 July and means that hare meat must not be on the menu in restaurants during this period. Otherwise hares can be shot all year round, being the only game species which does not have a 'close season'. The Hare Preservation Trust believes that a shooting close season from February to September, when hares are breeding, would be an important way of reducing hare mortality. For details of its campaign visit www.hare-preservation-trust.co.uk.

Despite this, brown hares have a firm place in world mythology and folklore. They were considered a symbol of fertility, possibly because of their ability to conceive again whilst still pregnant. They have also been linked to the spring goddess, Eostre, from where, it is believed, the idea of the 'Easter bunny' originates. And they have astronomical links - the constellation Lepus represents a hare and is named after the brown hare's Latin name Lepus europaeus, while some cultures believe the dark patches on the moon, the Lunar mare, are in the shape of a hare.

Mystical connotations aside, the brown hare is a beautiful and awe-inspiring creature. If you're lucky enough to spot one this season - aside from leaping for joy - let us know. The Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre, based at the Trust, records sightings for all species. Log on to www.wsbrc.org.uk and follow the link to 'Your Records';

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