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Mad as a March Hare

March 2012  


HareAs mad as a March hare - it is probably an expression you have heard. I have seen what I think were some hares recently, but I wasn’t really sure about the differences between hares and rabbits and also why they are mad in March! So I thought it was worth investigating.

There are two types of hares in the UK, the blue hare (lepus timidus) and the brown hare (lepus Europaeus). The blue hare is the native British species but is really confined to higher ground, in much of Scotland and in areas of the Peak District for instance. The brown hare was introduced into the country in Iron Age times and is now widespread across lower ground in England and Wales.

It is very easy to confuse hares with rabbits from a distance but the main difference is that they have much longer limbs. This means they can run faster - they can be much speedier than rabbits and have been known to reach speeds of 72kph (45mph). In the case of brown hares, their large staring yellow eyes, reddish-brown fur and blacktips to their ears also helps in identification.

Adult hares only have short life spans, living generally around just four years although of course some manage to live a lot longer. Unlike rabbits, brown hares do not dig burrows, but make small depressions among overgrown vegetation, especially long grass, on the ground and this is a permanent home for them. They rarely stray too far away from their home (or “form” as it is called) and generally would cover a maximum range of perhaps 300 hectares around their base. A hare is happy to share this base with other hares - these mammals are not over possessive about territory. However, they are generally quite solitary animals and it is not unusual to see just one single hare.

The main predators of hares, especially young hares, are foxes.

March is one of the months when you are most likely to see a hare because during this month they become more active and visible because it is their breeding season. At this time they can be seen in daytime chasing each other madly around fields and also be seen to take part in the famous “boxing” rituals associated with hares. It used to be thought that this boxing involved two competitive males, but now it is known that the boxing is actually part of the courtship pattern and usually involves an unreceptive female fending off the advances of a very keen male, either to show she is not quite ready to mate, or to test the male’s determination.

Actually this courtship can and does take place throughout the year between February and September but spring seems to be the time when more of this activity takes place - and certainly it is more visible as it is at the very beginning of the main growing season so crops and vegetation do not offer so much cover. Female hares can have up to three litters a year, giving birth to up to four young hares (or leverets). Leverets are born fully furred with their eyes open.

If you want to spot a hare, the best time to see one is around early morning and dusk, when they may be out and about feeding on cereal and root crops. Spotting a boxing pair of hares is a wonderful sight - you don’t have to be as Mad as a March Hare to appreciate the beauty and character of these mammals!

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