Species of the Month – The Hare
Old big-bum, Old Bouchart
The hare-king, the frisky-one
Old turpin, the fast traveller…’
So begins the list of ‘Names of the Hare in English’, a late 13th Century poem from Shropshire – an incantation of 77 names recited to bring the animal under the hunter’s power.
The common, or brown, hare is a special and enigmatic animal woven into the fabric of folklore and mythology, and an unfortunately rare sight across most of the country. Hares declined by 75% in the years after WW2 due to the all too common causes of intensive farming, agrichemicals, removal of shelter hedgerows and general habitat degradation.
Evidence shows brown hares were found in Britain from around 2000 years ago and may be native or alternatively they might have been introduced by the Romans: their history here is possibly a combination of both – they may have died out and been reintroduced, eventually establishing and expanding territories, thereby pushing the native Mountain hare to more marginal environments.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between hares and rabbits but the latter are smaller, greyer and have shorter ears: hares also have dazzling honey-amber eyes. They carry their tails downward when they run, showing the black upperside, whereas rabbits show the white underside of their tails. Hares are usually solitary and live above ground, preferring open areas and settling in shallow indentations known as forms. Leverets are born fully furred and are soon running. They have no nest, so the doe spreads them out across a piece of land and their only protection is to keep still.
The ‘Mad March Hare’ phenomenon of boxing is usually between a doe and a buck whose advances are unwelcome.
The hare is believed to bring both good and bad luck and is the archetypal trickster figure in many cultures and has been linked symbolically with the moon, dawn, seasons, madness and fire. Hares are supposed to be able to turn into witches and vice-versa. In ancient Egypt the moon God Un-Nefer was depicted as a hare and for the Greeks it was a companion of Aphrodite – wedding rings bore its image. In Chinese mythology the hare symbolised longevity – in China there is no man in the moon, as it is a hare standing near a rock beside a tree holding the ‘elixir of mortality’.
For the Algonquin people of Canada, Michabo the Great Hare was the maker of the sun, moon and earth and ruler of the winds. Hares were sacred to many cultures across Europe; being the last animal to bolt from the final sheaf of standing corn (itself known as ‘the hare’) it was identified with Ceres the corn goddess. Celts and Saxons celebrated the hare and it is popularly linked with Eostre, the Goddess of Spring. In the Anglo-Saxon worldview hares laid eggs which signified the imminence of the year’s rebirth – a time of joy that marked the changing seasons and the vernal equinox. The veneration of the animal and the old game of searching for eggs laid by the Easter hare was adapted by Christianity and morphed into Easter Eggs and the gentle Easter Bunny.
One of the most interesting cultural manifestations of our fascination with hares is the intriguing design of three hares chasing each other in a circle, sharing three ears so that each animal appears to have two. Almost 30 medieval examples occur in Devon churches and the image has been found on floor tiles at Chester Cathedral and on a famous stained glass window at Long Melford in Suffolk. They occur in France, especially in the Alsace and Vosges regions, Switzerland and Germany, notably in Paderborn Cathedral.
The earliest examples are found in Chinese Buddhist cave temples dating from the 6th to 9th centuries CE. These are from Mogao at the western end of the Great Wall near an important trade centre on the Silk Roads – a sprawling network of trading routes linking east and west that carried warriors and pilgrims, merchants and artisans as well as transmitting faiths and ideas. It is likely that the image of the three hares, found initially on silks and textiles, travelled along these routes. There are examples found in Afghanistan from around 1100 CE and Nepal from 1200 CE with the design reaching Europe the following century. A beautiful tray from Iran bears the image and there is an extraordinary Mongol-era reliquary casket from southern Russia, rich in Islamic iconography and with double images of the three hares.
The cultural associations of the hare occur across time and place. Pagan, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic traditions each imbued it with their own meaning and it is heartening to reflect on the thought that no single place or culture has a monopoly on this beautiful animal that has often stood as a symbol of a freer, wilder English countryside.