Forty-four years ago three young boys were walking home across some local farm land on a spring afternoon. They’d been in the wood looking for birds nests but were now heading across the front field, towards where a bridge crossed the brook so they could get on the lane that led to the village. One boy stopped in his tracks and froze. He’d spotted a young hare sat tight in the long grass just to his right. His friends had walked right past without seeing it. It was a little bit smaller than a rabbit in size. For a few seconds the eyes of the leveret and the eyes of the boy held each other’s gaze. The boy moved first and dived at the young hare with out stretched arms. The young hare moved faster and evaded the boys lunge. Off it set sprinting toward the wood. The boy gave out a yell, jumped up and ran after it for about thirty yards before realising it was a little bit too quick for him. His friends on hearing the yell had stopped, turned around and were looking back in astonishment! I’m sure you can guess who the boy was!
That was one of my first encounters with the Brown Hare. There was no shortage of them back then. It was a rare day when you didn’t see one. On another occasion not long after I was on the opposite side of the same woods. There where a lot of ponds on this land back then and I’d been rooting through the marginal rushes of one looking for Moorhen nests. This pond was on the back boundary of the wood. I was pushing my way out of the surrounding hedge to cross the field to the next pond. Once again I stopped in my tracks as there in front of me were two hares boxing. They were only yards away from me in the field and completely oblivious to my presence. I watched in amazement until they moved on. Over my teenage years I observed such antics on many occasions each year on this land. Whilst boxing hares are often called ‘Mad March Hares’ it was usually each February when such behaviour was first observed.
A friend of mine at this time was a couple of years older than me and had an air gun. He went out one spring morning at dawn and managed to shoot a hare. I’m sad to say he then decided that he didn’t want it. He called at my house to see did I want it for ferret food. I took it off him not really knowing what I was going to do with it. It was in fact the first hare I’d handled. After carefully studying it I set about skinning it. I’d decided I wanted to eat it, cure the pelt and use the scraps for ferret food. My Dad was a chef so I knew he’d cook it for me. He actually arrived home as I was skinning it in the back garden. He wasn’t very impressed at all as it was a milky doe. Whilst he wasn’t a hunting man he was all for eating and cooking game but in the proper seasons. He made it quite clear to me, there and then, that it had been wrong to kill this animal at this time of year. He was a little relieved when I explained it had been given to me and I hadn’t killed it. He was absolutely right, my friend had been wrong to kill it especially as he then didn’t want it. My Dad helped me finish skinning it whilst grumbling that it should have been ‘hung’ and should be ‘jugged’. He cooked up some of it anyway probably to shut me up. I didn’t like it. I’ve tried hare on many occasions since, cooked in all different ways and I still don’t like it.
These memories of my youth were evoked this spring when I took a trip over those same fields I grew up mooching about on. The hare population has declined massively in recent times but a few small pockets of survivors seem to be having little revivals here and there. This place is one of those pockets. I was going about some other covert business on this morning when I spotted a hare on the other side of the arable field I was on. I was walking up the edge but stopped and watched. The hare squatted down in the young barley. It was one of the rare occasions that I didn’t have a dog with me too. I quickly put my kit down, picked up my camera, crouched and began to call. I had camo gear on, a hedge as a background and the light breeze was in my favour. The hare came flying over to my call and I was rewarded with a close and personal encounter. I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoy seeing a hare when I was once spoilt as we had so many.
Tom Riley, who it’s good to see writing again, asks in ED-RD no 317 ‘I wonder what it’s like today?’ referring to the once famous hare population of Altcar. The fields I’ve just described are in south Merseyside rather than the north. There are still hares in north Merseyside and west Lancs, more than anywhere else in fact but sadly the numbers are nowhere near what they once were. Certain places up there still regularly shoot them whenever numbers are building up simply to keep people off. Some of what were once the best places are now pretty much barren. I was recently speaking with a shoot owner about hares, though he is not from that area I must add. He was telling me, with a nostalgic look in his eyes, how he used to look out of his bedroom window in spring time and would see up to a dozen in the field behind his house. Now there are none. I ran the idea by him of perhaps introducing some again as he is also a keen conservationist and pretty good at keeping people off. I also had the opportunity to long net some if I wanted. He thought about it for a few seconds before shaking his head and answering ‘It’s what they attract that’s the problem…’ This is indeed a problem; a problem for the hares recovery. Many farmers and keepers have found their lives to be easier without hares than with.
With our fox population now wiped out in many places by night vision shooting will we start to see the hare make a comeback? The fox is the hare’s main natural predator. Rabbits, who don’t co-exist very well with hares are also now scarce. When nature gives with one hand she takes with the other. Though in this case it’s man once again messing with the balances rather than nature. Sadly too much land is being lost to development, much of it once prime hare habitat. Could they yet still stage a comeback against all the odds? The optimist in me hopes so. My early encounters with hares helped shape me into a hunter and conservationist. Let me know what you think? After all nobody cares more about the hare than those of us who have hunted it.