In Somerset, where the wild begins to tug at the kirtle of England, there is a set of hills called the Mendips.
We had a week’s holiday at a lovely little cottage on a farm there, miles from anywhere much, threaded by footpaths unsuitable for a baby buggy but calling with a siren song nevertheless.
The most important thing we remember about that place was the hare.
We were his neighbours, you see, if only for a week. Our cottage was a ready-made hide. Its windows gazed out upon vast fields of waist high grass, which seem in my memory to stretch to foothills about a mile away.
Phil was no stranger to hares. Aged 11, on a cross country run on the sandy west coast at Southport, he was in a gaggle of young boys who had startled one, and watched it run past them at incredible speed to reach the sand dunes. He marvelled at the back legs which had the power to propel him with such force through his environment.
Phil was struck by the raw freedom of this creature. While the boys must run where they were told, the hare went where it would.
Now a grown man, he watched at evening time, from the little cottage, as a hare could be seen taking its ease. It was not running: rather, it was sitting, wrapped up in a vivid moment, in an English summer, its dark ears and form visible in the swaying grasses.
What man cannot ascertain he makes up in stories. Imbibe the old tales of the hare and you will scent androgyny, fertility, mystery and paradox. The Africans paint the hare a mischief-maker, and the Brer Rabbit stories are said to have evolved from them. The Irish style him a hanger-on of fairies. Aesop’s hare was arrogant and proud; The English white hare was alternately a witch, and a broken-hearted maiden who haunted an unfaithful lover.
I read my friend Susan’s post on hares the other day. Our thoughts turn to the long-eared fleet-footed warrior this time of year. March is traditionally the time when hares become flighty. They act with less than their customary inscrutable gravity. We have loved the metaphor for centuries.
For what could be more electrifying, after a long winter, eating preserved foods and living in the darkness, than a boxing hare?
It is immediate, virile, in-your-face nature. It thrusts a year, ready to grow, into our being. It seems the hare has lain during the dark, dank cold and mist of the Winter months, and now it has received some sign invisible to us; a sign that rude Spring is upon us.
A very male image, wouldn’t you say? An activity akin to jousting or fencing. The one rule about hare fight club is that you don’t talk about hare fight club.
It is best, then, that you think again.
Because a pair of academics spent an inordinate amount of time watching hares closely, and they have come up with a conclusion which turns the gender of Spring on its head.
Durham University academic Paul Greenwood and his Somerset colleague Anthony Holly set up a hare-spotting site. It was on a hill, and long-lens cameras recorded the hares as they went about their business.
Their first discovery: hares were carrying on like this well before March, under the cover of darkness, unobserved by humans.And when the long grass grew they were unobserved once again.
In fact their idiosyncratic behaviour stretched from January to August. The does were available for a very wide window indeed.
Then why, the researchers puzzled, were the males rutting for all this time? Rutting was associated with species whose females were only available for a short spell.
It was when the researchers got to know the hares and recognise genders that the penny dropped.
This was not males rutting. It was males advancing on females, and being given a firm brush off. Or rather, being punched in the face.
A summary article in The Atlantic Monthly records: “The fights lasted as long as two minutes. The pattern was a short chase followed by a flurry of female blows, then another chase and another one-sided encounter – and so on for as many as thirty-four bouts.
“Though amorous males sometimes retaliated, they more often did not, even when heavily cuffed about the head and shoulders. Doe hares being larger than buck hares, some of the males ended up visibly scarred around the ears.”
Poor old battered male hares. Persistent souls, though. You have to hand it to them.
So the March hare joins all those other enchanting stories as a myth. I doubt, though, that we will ever fall out of love with them. They are too powerful; too fast; and too damn wild.