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What is the link between the Easter bunny and eggs? And what have lapwings got to do with it all?

This is an Easter wildlife story that brings together two mammals, a bird, and eggs.

Central to the Easter tradition, at least in Europe and North America, are the Easter bunny and Easter eggs, but why have these come to be associated with the main festival of the Christian calendar?

Easter egg containers. Picture: Martin Walters (56090077)
Easter egg containers. Picture: Martin Walters (56090077)

In the origin of the story, the Easter bunny (rabbit) was a hare, the Osterhase of German legend. The Easter hare acted as a kind of judge, deliberating on whether children were deemed to have behaved well or had been naughty during Eastertide.

The hare would arrive carrying a basket of coloured eggs, sweets, and toys to reward those children who had been good. In medieval times, the hare was often associated with the Virgin Mary, as it was considered to be hermaphrodite and thus capable of a kind of virgin birth, and hares feature in some examples of church art.

But why the link between hares (or bunny rabbits) and eggs? Well here the story gets more complicated. The tradition of giving eggs at Easter is long-established.

Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus) boxing in Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup
Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus) boxing in Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup

Spring is when most wild birds lay their clutches, and eggs are a potent symbol of rebirth and therefore of resurrection, and so are perfect for Easter.

Ukraine is much in our thoughts just now, and in that country there is a strong tradition of decorating eggs (pysanki) during Easter celebrations; indeed coloured eggs feature at Easter in many countries today.

One bird that may be involved in this story is the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a large plover found over much of Europe.

Lapwings. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Lapwings. Picture: Jonathan Heath

In winter these beautiful birds can often be seen flocking to feed on arable farmland or at wetlands. They breed mainly in open fields and build only a minimal nest, a simple scrape thinly lined with plant material.

Hares also breed in the open, creating a flattened area of grass known as a form, and lapwings and hares are sometimes found in the same grassy habitats. Hares often crouch flat to hide from their predators, then rush away suddenly if disturbed. The sight of a hare running away in an area where lapwings are nesting may well have led to thoughts that it was the hares that had laid the eggs.

Lapwings. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Lapwings. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Lapwings are even said sometimes to take over a hare’s form for their nest, and the returning hare may then find herself snuggling down next to a clutch of eggs, thus adding ‘evidence’ to reinforce this fallacy.

In spring, hares sometimes dash about, occasionally rearing up and boxing each other. This behaviour usually involves a female hare fending off unwanted attention of males, rather than rival male hares competing for access to the female.

Moving on from animals to plants, I made an Easter pilgrimage to worship a botanical speciality not far from Cambridge, on Therfield Heath near Royston.

Pasqueflower. Picture: Martin Walters
Pasqueflower. Picture: Martin Walters

A dry, south-facing slope of ‘unimproved’ chalk grassland there supports a thriving population of one of Britain’s rarest and most beautiful wildflowers, the pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris).

As suggested by its name, the pasqueflower comes into bloom around Easter and this year the show is particularly impressive, with thousands of plants dotted around in the short turf, creating a magical almost fairy-tale display.

Though the air that day was still cold when we visited, the sun brought out some peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies and a few bees were feeding from some of the yellow-centred, six-petalled purple flowers.

Read more from Martin Walters every month in the Cambridge Independent and visit his author page

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