Watch mad March hares in Cambridgeshire this spring
Caroline Fitton, of the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire, discusses a seasonal nature highlight, sadly in decline.
Soft amber eyes, delicate dark-tipped long ears and elegant long back legs - brown hares are a real delight to encounter at any time of the year – and now is the ideal time to see them.
To observe a hare is such an exciting part of spring - like early morning bird song, or the first spring flowers, seeing hares racing around is a sign that longer, warmer days are coming, and the world is waking up after winter. Naturally secretive animals, partly by necessity, dawn or dusk are the best times to spot them, and around Cambridge, Trumpington Meadows is a good place to spot them as it has a mixed habitat of grassland with nearby farmed fields – ideal for hares.
At this time of year the sight of hares boxing is an unforgettable experience, and the sparring forms an important part of the mating process. For many years it was wrongly assumed that boxing hares were rival males, or “jacks”, sparring to win the attention of a watching female, the “jill”. Now we know that they are a male and female, and that the boxing is actually a way for her to test his strength, persistence and commitment before deciding whether to mate with him - just one of the many unique qualities that make the hare such a fascinating animal.
Living in very exposed places, rather than creating burrows, they make a small depression in the ground among long grass, known as a form, spending most of the day on or near the form, moving out to feed in the open at night. Though generally solitary, hares sometimes band into loose groups when feeding, relying all the time on acute senses, with the ability to run at speeds of up to 70kph (45mph) to evade predators.
Breeding takes place between February and September and a female can rear three or four litters a year, each usually of two to four young. The young, leverets, are born fully furred with their eyes open and are left by the female in their own forms a few metres from their birth place. For the first four weeks of their lives, the leverets gather at sunset to be fed by the female just once a day, but other than this they receive no parental care. This avoids attracting predators to the young at a stage when they are most vulnerable, foxes being the chief predators of young hares.
When it comes to legal protection hares have little - they are game animals managed by farmers and landowners, and numbers have declined substantially. Today’s modern farms are intensive and specialised, either growing crops like wheat and oilseed rape, or raising livestock for meat and dairy produce, whereas 100 years ago most farms were mixed enterprises, with a patchwork quilt of fields providing year-round grazing for hares as well as long crops for them to hide in. Modern cereal farms provide little or no food for hares in late summer and autumn, and livestock farms have few crops for them the hide in; modern farm machinery and pesticides also kill many hares.
Britain’s hare population is estimated at around 700,000, a steady decline over the past few decades. Unlike every other kind of game, such as deer or pheasant, hares can be hunted all year round, which results in the needless deaths of many young, if their mothers are shot during the spring or summer.
Hare hunting with beagles and harriers used to occur throughout Britain, with hare coursing events run by coursing clubs, but the 2004 Hunting Act made that illegal.
Despite this, illegal hare coursing remains a large problem in certain areas, especially East Anglia, using lurchers and cross-bred greyhounds to chase down and kill hares – a subject recently covered on BBC Countryfile (Tom Heap report, Sunday 17 February), which revealed an increase in online gambling on coursing. Worryingly, footage can be widely shared via online platforms such as Facebook – and pressure is now being brought to have footage taken down and those sites banned.
Another threat facing these beautiful animals is a disease once only seen in rabbits, which appears to have made the leap to hare populations – especially in the east of England. Reports of dead or dying hares has led scientists at the University of East Anglia to start an investigation. Early examinations suggest the animals are victims of myxomatosis, a virus introduced to the UK in the 1950s to control rabbits, which killed 99 per cent of the population. This disease worryingly has the potential to wipe out the hare population, so hares need all the protection they can get.
John Comont, director of conservation at the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust, said: “The brown hare is such an iconic species - they are not only important as wildlife, but they also contribute to the habitat of many rural areas with the wild grazing that they do alongside rabbits.”
Here are a couple of opportunities to see hares this year..
Great Fen March hare walk, Saturday March 9, 10.30am-12.30pm
Join the Great Fen team for a spring guided walk through the heart of the Great Fen, look for all kinds of spring wildlife, the first wild flowers of the year and as well as mad March hares boxing in the fields.
Meet at the Great Fen information point, New Decoy; £4 per person.
For booking and further information contact Mandy Corney on 01487 815524 or email email@example.com
March hares and other animals walk, Trumpington Meadows, Thursday 14 March, 7-9am
Join rangers Becky and Iain to look for brown hares around the reserve and in the surrounding fields. This is the best time to spot these characterful mammals, and there's a possibility of catching them boxing, with eyes peeled for other mammals too – 26 different species have been seen on the reserve. £5 per person, for booking and further information contact Becky Green on 01223 665742 or email TrumpingtonMeadows@wildlifebcn.org