Spring is in the air hare style

PUBLISHED: 08:44 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

A bit of a tiff in the short grass

A bit of a tiff in the short grass

The shy and elusive hare has only one thing on its mind in the month of March - and it is prepared to fight to get it WORDS AND PICTURES BY STEVE AND ANN TOONEarly March, a rare clear, calm day, and we're driving nervously...

The shy and elusive hare has only one thing on its mind in the month of March - and it is prepared to fight to get it WORDS AND PICTURES BY STEVE AND ANN TOON

Early March, a rare clear, calm day, and we're driving nervously along a narrow road across the Northumberland moors. Nervous, not because of the road conditions, but because we're crossing the Otterburn artillery range and, despite the absence of red flags, we can't avoid a nagging doubt that perhaps we've got it wrong and today isn't one of the 'non-firing' days. We're looking for black grouse to photograph, but what we find instead is a battle. Not a battle with tanks, shells, or small arms, though; this is purely bare knuckle fighting. Or should we say bare paws. For the protagonists are a pair of brown hares, rearing up on their hind legs and doggy-paddling their front paws at one another in a furious flurry of furry fisticuffs. In truth, it's more handbags at 15 paces than serious combat. For these mad March hares aren't two males fighting over territory or breeding rights, but rather a female hare rejecting the advances of an amorous male. She's playing hard to get, and she's bigger and heavier than he is, so there's only going to be one winner of this brief would-be lovers' spat. But he's persistent, and eventually she will give in and reward his attentions with a brief coupling. Brown hares have only one thing on their minds this month. It's the start of the breeding season, and testosteronefuelled boxing matches can be seen in fields and grasslands throughout the North East. It's what makes March the best month for hare-watching, as these usually shy and elusive creatures are pre-occupied with courtship, and are just a little easier to approach. Courtship activity will carry on throughout the summer, but the best time to see it is at dawn (hares are predominantly nocturnal creatures), so in later months you have to get up a lot earlier. And as grass and crops grow longer, it's harder to spot hares among the cover. Our female may be a reluctant mate today, but the truth is that hares, like rabbits, are fast breeders, and by September she could have borne as many as four litters, with anything up to eight leverets in each. She will leave the leverets unattended, each in its own form, returning only once a day to suckle them. Despite their excellent camouflage, leverets are vulnerable to predation, particularly in areas with short grass and little cover, and buzzards and foxes can take a heavy toll despite the close attention of the parents. Cold, wet conditions in early summer can also be deadly but here, on the east side of the country, new research suggests the climate may be more hare-friendly than further west. Ecologist Dr Silviu Petrovan of Hull University is studying hare densities on pasture land in the North East, in an attempt to identify how different farm management techniques can impact on numbers. Agricultural intensification and changes in land management practices have been blamed for a dramatic 80 per cent decline in the UK's hare populations during the 20th century and, although the population appears to have stabilized and hares are still abundant on arable land, they have become rare in pastures. But Dr Petrovan's surveys have revealed much higher numbers of hares on pasture land in the North East than the national average, though some sites still have very low numbers. 'We're not really sure why this is at the moment, but one reason might be because the North East is much drier than the west of Britain, where most of our pastures are,' she explains. 'Hares, particularly young ones, because they don't burrow, are vulnerable to hypothermia and diseases during wet periods, so the lower rainfall here might be a factor in giving us higher numbers. However, the fact that we also see low densities in some sites suggests that land management has a part to play as well.' Dr Petrovan hopes her analysis of the various factors affecting hare numbers will ultimately lead to practical advice for landowners keen to encourage hares to settle and breed on their land. In the meantime, she's keen to hear from anyone with information on hares in the North East, particularly on pasture land. If you are looking for hares this month, then farmland is the best place to start. Although we've spotted hares on rough grassland and heather moors in the north Pennines and here on the Otterburn ranges, they don't really like exposed uplands and their preferred habitat is mixed arable and pasture farmland, where there is a variety of food available throughout the year, with patches of scrub or woodland for shelter. It's also worth looking for hares in wetland areas, where marshy grassland and scrubby woodland provide both food and shelter. Dawn and dusk are the best times to look but, at this time of year, you stand a chance of seeing them boxing at any time of day. Like much wildlife, hares can be surprisingly tolerant of passing vehicles and using your car as a mobile hide can be an effective way of getting close. On foot can be trickier, and getting near requires patience and a bit of fieldcraft. We've found the easiest hares to approach are those that are pre-occupied with courtship and, with a combination of stalking on all fours and then belly-crawling commando-style, we've occasionally got to within five metres. But that was in a field of sheep, and we suspected the hares mistook us for some kind of eccentric livestock. They're not known as hare-brained for nothing! If you have information on brown hares in the north east, Dr Petrovan would be interested to hear from you. Telephone her on 01723 357223, or email s.petrovan@hull.ac.uk.

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