What animal do you associate with March?
When you ask any country person what animal is associated with March, it is more likely than not that they will say the hare, and more than just a hare, the Mad March Hare. Hares are much loved animals but most of the time their nocturnal lifestyle and their normally secretive daytime behaviour makes them so difficult to find that many people have only seen them on a screen. If you want to see hares, March is definitely the month to do it.
This is because the increasing day length triggers their mating behaviour, (which to us seems mad) and in March many of the arable crops such as wheat are still short enough for us to see what is going on. Later in the year they may still be just as mad but they will be hidden by the growing crops.
The madness consists of pairs or groups of hares careering about, chasing each other at high speed, twisting and turning, with the leader stopping every now and again to stand on her hind legs and batter her followers with her front feet. We say her, for two reasons. First, it is the rural convention to refer to all hares as her or she, whatever their actual sex. Second, in this instance, the leading hare is female, in spite of normally being the largest animal in the group. Another oddity of brown hares is that females (called Jills) are usually bigger than males and often very aggressive towards the pursuing males (Jacks).
There are lots of odd facts about the hares you can see chasing each other through the corn in March. For instance they are, surprisingly, not native to the British Isles. When the last Ice-Age ended our hares ancestors survived in several thousand miles away near what is now the Caspian Sea. They spread slowly westward but did not arrive in time to reach us on dry land before the melting ice flooded what we call the Channel and made us an island. They were brought here by Gaulish tribes in pre-Roman times. Not only did the Gauls enjoy hunting them, they used them for divination and even worshipped a God called Eoster (the root of our Easter) who took the shape of a hare.
Another oddity is that hares spend all their lives above ground. Most small mammals will use holes for shelter or to protect their young, think of a badgers sett, a foxes earth, or a rabbits burrow. All a hare has is a form. A shallow scrape in the ground in which it lies, and in which its young are born. No matter the weather, the hare and its young (leverets) just have to put up with it. On the plus side the leverets are born well developed compared to most mammals. Their eyes are open and they are fully furred and can eat solid food almost from birth, although their mother suckles them once a day (at evening) for a short time. Despite this they are extraordinarily vulnerable, to both weather and predation. Late snow or heavy, prolonged rain will kill them, and their only defence against predators such as foxes, crows, and stoats, is their camouflage, if they are discovered there is little hope of escape.
Hares are not evenly abundant across the UK. They are generally less common in the wetter, colder north and west, and more common in the drier south and east. They tend to be most abundant on the estates of East Anglia where farming makes habitat concessions to game management and gamekeepers carry out the legal control of common predators. Hares are grazing animals and need a variety of vegetation to ensure that they can find nutritious food at the right height for them to eat. These are the same conditions that favour game birds, and so the habitat management for them, coincidently helps the hares.
Nationally the hare has suffered from farm specialisation, where, instead of the older systems of largely mixed farming, with each farm having livestock and arable crops, they are now all dairy or all arable. This means that whilst there is plenty of food for hares at certain times of the year, there may be none at critical periods. On arable farms, perhaps surprisingly, this can be in the summer, when you might think that there is lots of food, but if it is all tall, weed free wheat and barley, too tall for hares and leverets to graze, they can starve in the midst of apparent plenty.
The reduction in the numbers of full time game keepers has also had an effect. Research shows that a single fox family can eat the entire leveret production in their area. If you add to this the impact of crows and other predators, in simplified agricultural environments, hares can have a difficult time.
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has done a great deal of research into the problems hares face in the modern rural landscape and has published much of it in peer reviewed scientific papers. As a result we know what needs to be done to conserve hares, and happily, it is not unachievable at reasonable cost and trouble. Several government funded 'agri-environment' options available to farmers, can make a huge difference. Planting wild bird seed mixes, cover crops, beetle banks, hedgerows and grass margins can be done by any farmer, not just those who run shoots. All will help create the habitat mosaic that suits hares. If these are combined with efficient and timely predator control the chances of conserving hares in sustainable numbers rise even further.
So there is still a good chance in many areas, if you walk quietly through the March countryside, that you may still see the Mad March hares doing what comes naturally.
(Anyone wanting to know more about hares and their conservation than is contained in this short article can learn more from the 32-page report, A Future for brown hares, which is available free at gwct.org.uk/brownhares
Written by Ian Coghill