British Wildlife of the Week
Last week, in the run-up to Easter, we looked at the history and ecological importance of the European rabbit. Today, we’re turning our attention to its larger and more elusive relative, the brown hare. As we mentioned last time, the hare is not native to the UK, although when, exactly, it arrived here remains unclear. The traditional train of thought is that it was brought to the British Isles by the Romans around 2,000 years ago, probably as a game species. However, growing evidence suggests that it may have arrived here with even earlier farmers, perhaps in the Iron or Bronze Ages.
Regardless, we do know that this fleet-footed animal is originally from the vast grasslands of eastern Europe and Asia, and spread westward after the last Ice Age. As a steppe animal, it is well-adapted to life in wide, open spaces and has evolved to survive extreme weather with little or no shelter. As such, unlike rabbits, the hare does not construct or use burrows. To rest, it simply hunkers down in a shallow depression in the ground, braving whatever the elements throw at it. Whether it’s blisteringly hot, pouring down, or even snowing, a hare will usually just sit tight and take it.
Living in open spaces also exposes hares to greater danger from predators. Once again, because they do not have an underground escape route, their best defence is to lie absolutely still, their ears pressed flat against their back, relying on their camouflage. In fact, a hare will usually remain like this until the last possible second before dashing away at high speed. It is the fastest land mammal in Britain, capable of reaching speeds of 70 kph or more.
Rabbits have young that are born blind and hairless, but baby hares (or leverets) are born fully formed and mobile, with fur and open eyes. Almost immediately afterwards, their mother seemingly abandons them. Fortunately, they are fairly self-sufficient. Since there is no burrow that would afford them protection, the leverets disperse into the grass, but they come together again in the evening, usually close to where they were born. This is the only time of the day that their mother returns to them, suckling them for a maximum of five minutes each. Then the mother leaves for another 24 hours, leaping away so as not to leave an olfactory trail. This lack of family contact may seem harsh, but it is a strategy that draws less attention from predators.
A Spring in their Step
Hares may not be native, but the sight of these usually shy, crepuscular animals chasing and boxing one another, especially on crisp March mornings, has become one of the finest British spring spectacles. As such, the phrase ‘mad as a March hare’ has arisen. They aren’t going mad, though; they’re just a bit frisky. When a doe, or jill, is ready to mate, she runs across the countryside, starting an exuberant chase that tests the speed and stamina of the following males. When only the fittest male remains, the female stops and allows him to copulate with her.
But what about the boxing? Well, it was long assumed to be between rival males fighting it out for dominance and the chance to mate with the watching females, but we now know that these sparring matches are usually male versus female. To rebuff the unwanted (and sometimes aggressive) attentions of a sexually charged, over-eager male, a female who hasn’t quite come into oestrus yet will rise up onto her hind legs and flail at him with her forepaws. At times, more than one male will get involved; they jostle and tumble over one another, leading to a chaotic free-for-all as the female tries to fend them off.
The ‘March’ bit of the expression, however, is something of a misnomer, for this boxing behaviour can be observed throughout much of the hares’ breeding season, which runs from January to October. The saying probably arose because crops traditionally tend to be lower in early spring, making the usually secretive hares – and their amorous antics – more visible.
The Easter Hare
Rabbits and hares have been associated with religion, folklore and magic for a very long time. Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman naturalist (who was, it has to be said, a fairly reliable peddler of untruths), believed that the hare was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce asexually, which in turn led to a connection with the Virgin Mary. Later, many monks and scholars seemed to like the idea of an animal that could reproduce without any of the sinful connotations associated with sexual intercourse.
And then there’s the fact that the original Easter Bunny, as I mentioned in last week’s article, was actually a hare. It is commonly said that in Germanic mythology, hares were sacred to Ēostre, a mysterious goddess who was associated with the coming of spring and the dawn (and who, it has been claimed, we get the word ‘Easter’ from). Some say that the goddess had a hare companion that later became the Easter Bunny. In one tale, Ēostre is said to have healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as a gift.
But this story is not as ancient as you might think. It was, as far as we can tell, only created in the late 19th century. In fact, reliable historical evidence for the proposed connection between Ēostre and the hare is seriously lacking. Some depictions of Ēostre have shown her with a hare head or hare ears, but, once again, these seem to be more modern inventions.
However, the concept of an egg-toting Easter Bunny has been around for much longer. The earliest known reference can be found in a late 16th-century German text, which reads, ‘Do not worry if the Easter Bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, we will cook the nest.’ In the 18th century, the Easter Bunny made its way to the United States with the arrival of German immigrants. Children made nests so that the ‘Oschter Haws’ (Easter Hare) could leave eggs in them. The tradition spread throughout the U.S., where the hare’s gifts eventually became chocolates and candies, and the nests were replaced with baskets.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that hares gained such fame at a time of year when the still-short grass and lack of cover, coupled with their exuberant boxing and mating rituals, make them unusually conspicuous. To me, the hare is the ultimate symbol of the open countryside, and I hope to one day view their ‘mad March’ antics in all their glory.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at a giant rodent that, after a four-hundred-year absence, has finally started to return to our wetlands – the beaver. Also, keep an eye out for our other Easter-related articles here at The Nature Nook, including one on the wonder of eggs!