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Mad as a March hare

Friday 1st March

Mad as a March hare

Sunshine often brings out the best in people – especially when the cold, dark days of winter are banished in the spring. It’s enough to put a smile on your face, but not many of us act with the vigour of a Mad March hare.

March Hares aren’t a particular breed of hare – the phrase describes the seemingly bonkers behaviour of the brown hare displayed by these bouncy brown boxers at the start of spring. And box they do, knocking paws together like heavyweights as March heralds the start of their breeding season.

Lewis Carroll, perhaps, has much to answer for, making the March Hare a suitably insane character in his mind-bending story of Alice in Wonderland. But textual references to “mad hares” go back as far as the 15th Century, so the blame does not lie solely with him. Indeed, the blame lies with the hares themselves  who can be seen jumping up and down for no particular reason, starting boxing matches with one another and generally “acting weird” from March through the springtime.

The behavioural changes, especially the aggressive ones, were often thought to be solely between males, or jacks, as they fought to prove their supremacy in an overcrowded breeding season – but the supposition is wrong. It is, in fact, the females (jills) who tend to strike out first, using their forelegs to repel over-enthusiastic males who have neglected the animal equivalent of dinner, flowers and chocolates and tried to mate uninvited. This madness, evidenced by centuries of observation, still perhaps hasn’t been explained fully, but the enduring image of a bunch of happy bunny-esque creatures hopping gaily in the fields is as heartwarming as the spring sunshine itself.

Hares aren’t all fictional tea parties and pocket watches, though. In Britain especially, they are tied to dark folklore that, in some instances, claim hares themselves to be witches. It was said, many moons ago, that witches were able to transform into hares, most notably around winter time, when hares don’t seem to care about the cold and dance around fields as they look for food and shelter. Our superstitious forefathers perhaps didn’t understand as much as we do now about hare habits, and the idea of “witch-hares” was used to incriminate elderly women believed to be witches.

Other superstitions included the idea that if a pregnant woman saw a hare, her child would develop a ‘hare lip,’ a cleft in the middle of the upper lip. In other instances miners refused to go down the mines if they saw a hare on the way to work and fishermen refused to put out to sea, or if they did, would never utter the word ‘hare’. They did get some credit as a force for good though; like their cousin the rabbit, a hare’s paw was believed to prevent cramp and rheumatism, providing it was carried in the right-hand pocket.

Brown hares have a long history in Britain, but their numbers have decreased over the last century. The removal of hedgerows is thought to be partly behind this decline. Hares do not burrow or build warrens, but make a small depression in the  ground among long grass and often use hedges for cover. They are a far more rural species than rabbits, and tend to avoid suburbs and urban areas.

In Nottinghamshire, hares have colonised a number of the restored pit tips, such as Walkeringham and Annesley, but can be seen widely across the county in suitable habitat.

With the breeding season just beginning, and likely to last through spring and into summer, now is the perfect time to go hare-spotting.

Click here to find out more about hares

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