‘In a world of increasing ecological fragility, there has been no more important moment to focus on the health of nature and what it means to us as human beings, and how we relate to it.’ – Lord Edward Manners.
In Medieval times, they would have been considered prize ‘quarry’ for hunting by hounds or for coursing. Now they are cherished and Haddon hopes to do all it can to protect this special and deeply beautiful species.
Hares and rabbits are in a group of animals called lagomorphs. The hares most commonly seen in the British countryside are the brown hares (Lepus europaeus), the largest hare and Britain’s fastest wild mammal. Derbyshire is fortunate to also have mountain hares (Lepus timidus) which turn white in winter. These reside in the high hills of the Dark Peak. But here at Haddon we have a strong population of brown hares – a creature associated from the earliest times with farming. The Celts introduced the brown hare to these islands around 2,000 years ago as objects of worship and images of hares appear in art and in places of worship across most religions around the world.
Hares are distinctly different to rabbits. They are much bigger and weigh more, averaging 3.6 kg; they are around 15 cm longer; they have immensely long, powerful hind legs; strong, athletic bodies; and spectacularly long ears marked at the back with white fur and black tips. Their coat or ‘pelage’ is richly coloured, ranging from fawn and gold to a reddish brown, whilst the rabbit’s fur is more of a dull grey-brown. Their faces are also strikingly different: a rabbit’s is round with big dark eyes; whilst the hare’s is more pronounced and refined with black-rimmed eyes of marmalade colour.
When rabbits sense danger, they will scatter or retreat to their burrows but hares hunker down and wait for the threat to pass. If they do decide to run, they will run for their lives, the Brown Hare reaching speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
From leverets (young hares), hares live their lives above ground and are mainly active at night. They rest in the days in hollows made in the ground or in the grass known as a ‘form’. To avoid detection, and in an attempt to ensure a good rest, hares are adept at laying false scent trails, using clever tricks such as wide sideway jumps, so that a scent trail will seem to end.
Hares have a long breeding season, with mating beginning as early as January continuing into autumn but this is highly dependent on the weather. An early autumn will curtail the mating season and mild winter will extend it. Does (female hares) can have up to four litters in a year, with one or two leverets born in the spring and three or four born in summer.
Sadly, the mortality rate of hares and especially of leverets is high. If they survive into adulthood their life expectancy on farmland is around three to four years. They are particularly vulnerable to a range of predators including the fox, badger, owl, stoat and buzzard.
Worryingly, the brown hare population is in significant decline in Britain, predominantly caused by modern arable farming practices including the removal of hedgerows and use of insecticides and fungicides. Hares thrive in sensitively farmed and biodiverse landscapes where they have cover and a wide range of food plants.’
It is our great hope at Haddon that the organic Medieval Park, with its woodland and wildflower meadows, will provide a sanctuary of good habitat and year-round food for the hares and we are grateful to Christine Gregory who will be advising us and monitoring them on our behalf.
Christine Gregory is a writer, photographer and painter. Having taught social and political studies in adult and community education for over twenty years, she went on to teach radio skills and print journalism in further education. She has made community-based radio programmes for BBC Radio Sheffield and features for BBC Radio 4, although now she concentrates full time on writing, painting and photography.
She has lived in the Derbyshire Dales of the Peak District for over thirty years. Here she has been following, studying and photographing wildlife, in particular brown hares, and water voles. She has produced books on both these species, a book on the social and natural history of a Peak District river and most recently a farming history based on farmers’ accounts. These books emanate from her lifelong love of the countryside and a deep personal concern for wildlife and the environment.