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Monday, 28 March 2016

Nature Notes 2: The Madness of the March Hare

In recent years I've enjoyed watching hares dancing and boxing in spring, in fields close to where I grew up in Leicestershire. The brown hare's spring behaviour can appear quite strange and has given rise to the expression 'as mad as a March hare'. In fact such 'madness' is simply part of their courting ritual.
Unlike rabbits, hares are not particularly sociable animals but they do show an intense, if sporadic, interest in each other during the mating season. This lasts from mid-February to mid-September however it is most noticeable at the start of the breeding season when all of the females tend to come into the breeding condition at about the same time. A male hare (a jack) will mate with as many females (does) as he can, following each doe around. Sometimes the boxing matches are between rival jacks fighting over the doe. They rise up on their hind legs, box and batter each other with their forepaws and turn in circles with their hind legs thumping the ground. Until recently it was thought that these displays were mostly between rival jacks however it is now known that it is usually the larger female fending off the advances of a too amorous male.
Having mated, the jack and doe go their separate ways, the jack to look for yet another doe.

Baby hares are called leverets. Each doe will give birth to several litters during the season, the first usually at the end of February/beginning of march. Litters consist of around 1-4 leverets which are born out in the open, usually in shallow depressions in long grass. Here they must lie absolutely still to avoid the attention of foxes and birds of prey.
Brown hare leverets.
Hares differ from rabbits due to the hare's longer, black-tipped ears, slimmer body and more muscular hind legs.
Hare

Rabbit
'Hareports'

In recent years some of the hares' most bizarre behaviour has been seen at airports. Several times in recent decades large numbers of hares have been reported at Heathrow, Gatwick and Belfast airports living on the grass along the runways. It seems odd that hares, which have very sensitive hearing, should live in such an ear-shattering environment, yet they seem to enjoy racing alongside the planes as they take off as if trying to outstrip them. However there is a sad side to this in that it is a symptom of the decline of viable habitats elsewhere.
Hares at Belfast Airport

Declining Hare Numbers

Unfortunately, like much of our wildlife, hare numbers are declining in the UK. Hares, unlike foxes for example, have not adapted to survive in urban areas, nor do they live in woodlands and most nature reserves are too small to support viable populations. During the 1800s there were around four million brown hares in Britain and this has declined by around 80%. The intensification of agriculture has been a major factor in this, since it has reduced the biodiversity and food supplies which hares need. For example 95% of hay meadows have been lost since World War Two. We simply cannot allow this to continue. You can read more about this issue on the Hare Preservation Trust website here:
http://www.hare-preservation-trust.co.uk/status.php


Further Reading

"Rabbits & Hares" Anne McBride Whittet Books London 1988


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