Hares are not a creature I have seen an awful lot of throughout my life, but on the rare occasions I’ve spotted one, I have gazed eagerly into their wild eyes and greatly admired their speed as they sped off into the distance – it is always a delight and a real treat to see a hare. Having grown up in rural Cumbria I was surrounded by wild rabbits as a child, and I have never been one to dismiss hares as merely “big bunnies” and it has consistently frustrated me when other people have dismissed them as such.
The Way of the Hare is an all-encompassing book that covers everything you need to know about hares in Britain, predominantly focusing on their behaviour, ecology and conservation. In addition to the pursuit of factual information about hares, what makes this book so charming is Taylor’s inclusion of her personal and intimate experiences with wild hares and other British wildlife, reflecting an infectious passion for these seldom-seen creatures.
Delving into their folklore throughout history, Taylor explores the hare’s association with the moon, their firm place in often unflattering idioms and their place in fables across the world e.g. the Tortoise and the Hare; the hare is the deceiver and trickster in some stories and the helper in others. The Celtic Queen Boudica supposedly kept a hare under her dress which she would release for guidance from the gods. Pagan cultures revered the hare for representing fertility, whereas Christians were discouraged from eating the flesh of hares because of their lustfulness. Hares even had a strong association with witchcraft and it was believed by some that witches could transfigure themselves into the body of a hare to conduct wicked, witchy deeds.
The chapters dedicated to understanding the taxonomy and biology of hares were fascinating. We have three species of hare in Britain: the brown hare (Lepus europaeus), the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) and the Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus). Brown hares were introduced long before rabbits during the Iron Age as a source of food and sport. Lagomorphs (hares and rabbits) are often dismissed as rodents by many and although lagomorphs share a common ancestor with rodents, they are both vastly similar and vastly different and cannot be lumped together so clumsily. Understanding the taxonomy of hares also reiterated how different a species they were to rabbits; you simply cannot dismiss a hare as a “big rabbit”, especially after you have been able to study one properly in the flesh and understand the differences in behaviour and overall ecology. Rabbits, for example, require soft, sandy soil in order to burrow, give birth to helpless, blind young and have a complex social structure. Hares, by contrast, tend to be solitary creatures, give birth to leverets, that are essentially tiny hares, do not burrow and simply leave the leverets to hide in a scrape while they forage through the day. Besides, when you notice those massive ears, huge hind legs and that wild, paranoid eye, you can’t mistake any hare for a rabbit.
I particularly enjoyed reading about hare courtship; the boxing of male and female hares is the origin of the “Mad March Hare” expression and it is a behaviour that I am yet to witness. It both amused and fascinated me that the whole boxing process was the female assessing the strength of the male, how fast he is, how strong he is and how determined he is to mate with her. “In both brown and mountain hares, females are bigger and stronger than the males, and they have no qualms about using force to punish any male who annoys them”.
The final chapter of this book is dedicated to the relationship between hares and people. Although I was already aware of hare coursing and the popularity of shooting hares for food and sport, my heart sank a little when I came to this chapter. I wasn’t really surprised to discover how difficult it was to survey the population of hares in Britain, discussed in an earlier chapter, but even rough estimates were suggesting that hares were in a steady decline. This was predominantly down to habitat loss –the intensification of farming does not really accommodate for the needs of hares – climate change and consistent shooting. Climate change is particularly affecting mountain hares; a mountain hare’s fur will change colour in winter based on the temperature change and the duration of the day, but consistently milder, wetter winters mean that mountain hares are completely white when there is little to no snow cover, making them particularly susceptible to predation or an eager shooter. Hares are culled when they are perceived to be a problem, usually when it comes to damaging crops. However, mountain hares in particular are the victims of large and controversial culls to protect red grouse from disease-causing parasites that hares may carry. There isn’t a closed season for shooting hares, with the exception of some upland areas, so it’s no surprise that so many are shot, snared and illegally coursed, often needlessly. If we were to restore their habitat, stop needlessly shooting them and try to act on climate change, the future would certainly be a lot more secure for hares.
This book is infinitely charming and packed with a wealth of information and delicate illustrations. The Way of the Hare is for anyone and everyone with even just a passing interest in hares. I have always loved hares but never looked properly into their ecology and behaviour and this book has fuelled my enthusiasm and passion for these wonderful creatures. I look forward to the next time I am fortunate enough to spot one!