A pair of deep brown eyes is watching me, not afraid, but curious. It’s a hare, the so-called ‘common’ brown hare which, although widespread in Britain, is sadly not such a common sight these days. Our meeting is an unexpected pleasure. Negotiating a narrow country lane, we’ve paused to allow the oncoming cars to pass. In the passenger seat, I’m day-dreaming, gazing out of the side window into a colourless January field. An as yet unidentifiable crop, kale perhaps, is struggling through the frozen Hampshire clay. Then I see it: the hare, resting on the grassy margin beside a gap in the hawthorn hedge, its face tilted towards me with an expression of bold interest. It’s a handsome face, leaner and more angular than its bunny cousin, with sweeping elegant whiskers and super-sensitive black nose. And what about those ears? Long and dark-tipped, they twist with the intensity of radar, alert to potential dangers. We stare at each other. I’m close enough to see the ruffle of the icy breeze through its gold-brown coat, and the white hair on its belly. I fight an urge to get out of the car and move closer, but I doubt the hare will allow that, and besides, the traffic is starting to move again.
I keep watching, as the car edges forward. Through intermittent ‘windows’ in the hedgerow, I’m surprised to see that the hare is following, running parallel to the road, keeping pace easily on those powerful limbs. The hind legs are longer than the front ones, and the back feet are bigger too, enabling a 40mph sprint if pushed. Intrigued, we pull over beside a gate. The hare stops too, nonchalantly scratching its nose with a hind leg, but poised to spring at any moment.
It can be a pest, of course, foraging on cereal crops and nibbling the bark of young trees, but the hare has been part of our landscape since it arrived with the Romans. It’s something of an enigma, turning up in both pagan and Christian symbolism. The Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre, kept a hare as her sacred animal, a symbol of fertility, rebirth and spring. Eager to get the pagans on-board, the early Christian church embraced this; the Easter bunny, is not so much rabbit, as hare. It seems, the creature even has its own patron saint, St Melangell, a 7th century nun who sheltered a hare beneath her skirts, safe from a prince and his hounds. Impressed by her courage, the noble huntsman gave Melangell a swathe of Welsh valley on which to found an abbey. Even earlier, Chinese mythology replaces the ‘man’ in the moon with the ‘hare’, representing immortality and new life.
It’s not all good, of course, which is perhaps not surprising for such a charismatic animal. Cornish legend suggests that abandoned maidens turn into white hares and haunt their faithless lovers. The bad reputation continues with claims that a witch can escape by transforming herself into a hare, and so it goes on.
And what of their legendary madness, immortalised by the ‘hare-brained’ March Hare in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’? Mad, as in really angry, perhaps! Normally solitary, in late winter, the hare goes in search of a mate. Harassed by an over-attentive suitor, the female may retaliate by rearing on her hind legs and boxing the male on the nose. Watching such a pair lunging and sparring is quite a spectacle, as their leaps take them airborne, hot breathe steaming in the freezing air. So feisty is this courtship that it seems amazing they ever get together at all! With luck, a month later a litter of leverets will be born, concealed in a shallow scrape or ‘form’ in the ground.
Our’ hare grows bored with us. Gracing us with a final, unconcerned glance, it turns a cold shoulder and bounds away across the field.