March 28th, 2018
Spring is definitely on the way when you see a pair of boxing brown hares in beautiful Snowdonia.
There are many signs that spring is just around the corner – the daffodils tentatively pushing through the cold soil, thousands of frogspawn hatching in ponds and lovely longer (and hopefully warmer) days. But perhaps the ultimate sign of spring’s welcome arrival is a sighting of a rare Brown Hare?
The common phrase “mad as a March hare” perfectly fits the antics of this curious and shy creature. They usually rely on hiding places in the long grass and hedgerows of rural areas across Britain, but during the winter and spring months the fields are more sparse and bare as the grasses and plants die away, which makes spotting these illusive animals a little easier.
Early spring is the breeding season for brown hares, so they will emerge from their hiding places, and participate in a leaping and jumping mating ritual, along with what looks like a “boxing” match. This may look fierce but it is all part of an elaborate courtship dance. It’s most often the female hare throwing the punches, as she fends off the attentions of male hares whilst she decides which will be the best match for her. If you’re lucky enough to witness this fascinating spectacle, it really is a sight to behold as the hares jump, leap and throw themselves around the field.
Brown Hares, also known as European Hares, aren’t native to Britain. They were thought to be introduced by the Romans, although their history in Europe goes back much further. Fossils of hare ancestors revealed that they lived alongside dinosaurs, between 230 and 65 million years ago!
It’s possible that the hare has managed to survive for so long thanks to its incredible running speed. The hare can be vulnerable to predators because it lives above ground in open fields, but in the face of attack the hare relies on outrunning its predators. They can run at a speed of over 45mph, and is the fastest land animal in Britain. They can even run sideways and jump backwards to escape their predators if they need to. It’s a strategy that has served the old hares well.
And spotting the difference between hares and rabbits is easy when you know how. Hares are much larger than their domesticated cousins, and they have longer limbs. They are much harder to spot, and if you do spot them in the spring then they’re likely to be engaged in the “mad march hare” ritual of hopping, leaping, fighting and boxing. They need lots of sustenance to keep them going through the mating season, and beyond – they don’t hibernate or rely on fat stores, so they need plenty of nourishment to keep them going. Their favourite foods to nibble on are grasses, wild herbs, bark and small twigs.
Sadly, Brown Hares have been in decline in the UK for the last 200 years, during which time their population has decreased by 80%. It’s thought that there are less than 800,000 Brown Hares left in the country today and the main reason for their decline is thought to be a loss of habitats – hay meadows and hedgerows, along with increased use of pesticides. And despite their falling numbers, hares are still often hunted in some parts of the country – especially as farmers look to protect their summer crops.
But, it’s not all bad news for the brown hare. Changes to the seasons and the fact that winter and spring are milder than ever, mean that the breeding season is extended across much of the year in many areas. So, with a bit of warm weather and some customary fighting, there may be hope for the hare population yet.
There are areas here in Snowdonia where you might spot the rare brown hare – head to the North Wales Wildlife Trust website (here) for more information