© 2014 by Barbara Copperthwaite.

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THE MADNESS OF THE MARCH HARE

 

The brown hare is a highly excitable and eccentric animal which, particularly in spring, can behave quite strangely. There is, in fact, sound evidence to suggest a behavioural basis for the expression "as mad as a March hare" - the courting instinct of the brown hare is responsible for much of its "insanity"

Hares are not as a rule sociable, but they do show an intense, if sporadic, interest in each other during the mating season. Groups of individuals, consisting of several males called jack-hares, will pursue a female doe in a chaotic, free-for-all display.

   It’s during these disputes that the famous boxing takes place. They rise up on their hind legs, box and batter each other with their forepaws and turn in circles on their hind legs thumping the ground.

   The display is reminiscent of kangaroos, which indulge in similar fighting rituals. Neither hares nor kangaroos, however, kick with their hind legs, which are extremely powerful and have long sharp claws that could inflict a fatal injury. In general the contestant box until one backs down, but the jacks have been known to fight to the death on occasion.

   Jack and doe may also have heated and vicious rows. The jack will court a doe regardless of whether or not she is in season. If the jack is too persistent she will box him. As he makes his approach, the doe rises up on her hind legs and tries to keep head and shoulders above him; in this way she can box down at him to prevent any attempts he might make at mating. If that does not put him off, she will set upon the jack and bite him hard. He may well retaliate, and the fur will really fly until he jack backs off or the doe and make her escape.

   The jack hare is ready to mate before the doe – in early January, well before  

the traditional mad March – and actually continues through to September. He roams large areas of the countryside in search of a doe and when he finally finds one, has quite a job persuading her to mate.

   Courtship technique is very much like that of the buck rabbit, with the jack pursuing the female everywhere. He has to compete in a boxing match with others for the same doe; but even when he has won, he seldom stays with the doe for more than a day or two – just long enough to ensure successful mating.

   The jack then continues his roaming existence in search of more females.

By contrast, the doe has a much more settled life. She lives in a fixed home range known in which she raises her family. The first litter can be born as early as February, the last as late as mid-October. Litter sizes increase throughout the season, probably due to more food being available.

    From the moment of birth, hares live out in the open – unlike rabbits, hares 

   

never use underground burrows. The young, know as leverets, have a full coat of fur and are soon fully mobile, though spend most of their time lying still in ‘forms’, which are shallow depressions, usually in long grass, heather or rushes. This can lead to well-intentioned people thinking it has been lost or abandoned, but you must never ‘rescue’ a leveret unless it has an obvious injury.

   The word hare derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hara’ which means to jump; a very apt name. A hare’s hind legs are long and incredibly muscular, and can power the creature up to 35 miles per hour, and enable it to jump up to 2m (6 ½ ft).

   The hare tends to move in a leapfrog motion with its hind legs landing in front of its forepaws. This is particularly pronounced at speed, when the stride may be as much as 4.5m (15ft). It has phenomenal stamina too – it can run up to four miles without tiring, and can even swim if it has to.