Hare Hunted, Hare Tamed, Hare Now

The Times, October 2002

Timid as a hare, we say. He ran like a hare. "Started hares" is raising a lot of irrelevant side-issues. Hare-brained is scatty, erratic: a mind skittering about in all directions.

Running very fast (as in the fable of the hare and the tortoise), and being afraid: these are what a hare does.

Hares have evolved elongated back legs with which they can reach speeds up to 48 miles per hour, and leap 8 ft forward and almost as high. This what differentiates them from rabbits, who burrow and hide: their strategy for avoiding predators is to outrun them.

Human beings, who put to their own use the different characteristics which animals evolved for their own benefit, have turned the hare's speed to sport, and bred dogs like the greyhound, with a corresponding turn of speed to pursue it. In greyhound racing, what they run after today is an electric "hare". To run with the hare and hunt with the hounds means tryng to keep on both sides, to play a double game.
In Greek times, the constellation Lepus was said to be the Hare running away from the hunting dogs of Orion. The Church Father Tertullian compared persecuted Christians to hunted hares: "The hunt is focused on us", he said, "as if we were hares." Later on, The hare was a Christian symbol of vigilance (it was believed to sleep with open eyes), and the need to flee from sin and temptation. Saints in heaven are sometimes pictured as hares munching grapes. Hare coursing was an important sport in Roman Gaul. From at least the thirteenth century in England, hares were conserved and protected, especially durign the breeding season, in order to be hunted. Cowardice was personified by a hare hunt the wrong way round: an armed man running from a hare. The smaller mountain hare was a favourite quarry in falconry.

Hares were snared and shot for food - jugged hare is an ancient recipe – and at harvest time, the last sheaf was often called "the hare": cutting it was "killing the hare", or "cutting the hare's tail off". In some traditions reapers would all stand around and throw their sickles at the "hare" . But at upper levels the large scale hunting was what mattered. Using beagles began under the Tudors, but beecame really popular in the eighteenth century.

Yet from mediaeval times opn there was always sympathy for the hunted hare: unlike a fox, it was such an ideally innocent victom. . Mediaeval saints like St Neot supposedly helped them; fourteenth century lyrics express keen sympathy; in the early Tudor period, Thomas More's Utopians felt pity for the innocent hare. What pleasure could be derived, asked Bishop Jewel, from setting fierce dogs onto a timid reature that attacked no one and was put to flight by the slightrest noise? Sixteenth-century Montaigne Montaigne denoucned cruelty to animals: "I cannot endure a dew-bedabble d hare to groan when set upon by hounds". Influenced by him, the seventeenth-century poet Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote a poem called "The Hunting of the Hare":

Betwixt two ridges of ploughed land lay Wat,
Pressing his body close to the earth lay squat.
His nose upon his two forefeet close lies,
Glaring obliquely with his great grey eyes.

She describes the way Wat lies up in the day and skitters around at night, until

At last poor Wat was found, as there he lay,
By huntsmen with their dogs that came that way...

and goes on to describe the hunt, and the kill. The eighteenth-century engraver Thomas Bewick first had his sympathy for animals stirred when, as a boy, he caught a hare in his arms while it was surrounded by hunters and dogs: "The poor terrified creaturescreamed out so piteously, like a child, that I woudl have given anythign to save its life". painter poet Francis Mudy denounced hare-hunting ("the murderous crewe/ In harmless blood their hands imbrue") and The Task, a poem by Mudy's contemporary William Cowper about his pet hare, begins,

Well, - one at least is safe. One sheltered hare
Has never heard the sanguinary yell
Of cruel man exulting in her woes.

" If I survive thee," he informs his pet,

I will dig thy grave,
And when I place thee in it, sighing say,
I knew at least one hare that had a friend.

He assumed, of course, that most hares don't. But after ten years,

she has lost
Much of her vigilant instinctive dread.

The hunting was outside; the poet's house was a safe haven:

thou mayst frolic on the floor
At evening, and at night retire secure
To thy straw couch, and slumber unalarmed.
For I have gained they confidence, have pledged
All that is human in me to protect
Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.

He also provided, as he writes in "The Epitaph", both food and space to lay:

A Turkey carpet was his lawn
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

When he does bury it and write the epitaph, he goes on about hounds again: "Here lies," he begins, "whom hound did ne'er pursue,/ Nor swifter greyhound follow ".

In addition to the hunting, all round the world an odd chaos of fantasy clusters round the hare. Above all, springtime and dawn. For Celts, the hare was taboo. You could not kill or eat it, except for the annual hare hunt at the Beltane festival. A female saint, St. Melangell, was always accompanied by a hare: hares were sometimes called hares have been styled St. Monacella’s Lambs, and were under her protection. In Co. Kerry it used to be said that eating a hare was eating your grandmother; and the penalty for killing a hare was to be struck with cowardice.
Anglo-Saxons also venerated the hare – but, again, ritual hare hunts were a feature of the spring festival, to the goddess Eostre. Here is the origin of the Easter Bunny, who was once a hare. Eostre was sometimes depicted as hare-headed (there is another hare-headed goddess respresented at Dendera in Egypt). Eostre's hare laid the egg of new life, to herald the rebirth of the year: The hare was also associated with fertility and lasciviousness, all the sexy country games that went with May-Day festivities. The old agricultural name for the April full moon was the Hare Moon.
Eostre's name gave us "Easter"; but is also cognate with Sanskrit usas and Greek eos, "dawn", Old Norse austr , 'east'. Many completely unrelated ancient cultures also associated the hare with dawn and the east. In Egypt the hare was shown greeting the dawn; in some North American Indian lore, the Great Hare was Hero of the Dawn (for the Algonquin Indians, he created the earth), who lived in the moon with his grandmother - or else in the east, on an island in a lake. In Britain, remnants of rituals that expressed these spring festival associations stagger on in folk traditions like the Hallaton Hare Pie Scramble in Leicestershire on Easter Monday, when men of the villages Hallaton and Medbourne compete for bottles of ale. One large hare pie is made for the village to scramble over: now dished out by the vicar. In former times an image of a hare was mounted on a pole and carried to the Hare Pie Bank before the games began.

Then there is the moon. The date of Easter is itself tied to the moon and the hare is your definitive lunar animal. Hare in the moon imagery turns up in an astonishing number of cultures from China to Mexico, with various tales about how the hare got there. One Buddhist version is that when the Buddha was hungry, a hare leaped into the fire for him, sacrificing itself to feed him. The grateful Buddha planted its image in the moon, in return. Both in Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the hare appears with the crescent moon. Norse iconography gave moon goddesses an attendant procession of hares carrying lanterns. In China, the moon hare held a pestle and mortar with which it mixed an elixir of immortality. The shadow-patterns on the full moon supposedly – if you look hard - are in the shape of a hare.
There is also fertility, and sexuality. The hare is associated with lusty sexuality and fertility. The hare is addressed in an Anglo Saxon poem as 'shagger'. It sometimes accompanied the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. The historian Philostratus said the most suitable sacrifice to Aphrodite was the hare, as it possesses her gift of fertility in a superlative degree. The Greeks knew the hare could conceive while already pregnant; hares' genitals were carried to avert barrenness. Pliny says that people thought that if you ate a hare your body would be sexually attractive for nine days.

The hare is also associated with madness, especially during the mating season when they box and leap in the air – hence " Mad as a March hare". The poet John Clare (1793-1864) wrote a poem called "Hares at Play":

The timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lanes road to dust and dance and play...
Till milking maidens in the early morn
Gingle their yokes and start them in the corn.
Through well-known beaten paths each nimbling hare
Sturts quick as fear – and seeks its hidden lair.

The hare is all fear and speed, hiding and dance.
Dancing hares supposedly looked like a coven of dancing witches, or a whole aura of magic and witchery comes with the hare as well. It was an animal of magic and divination: Boadicea supposedly released a hare from beneath her cloak to predict the outcome of her battles. But it was ill-opened too: ill luck associated with its v the divided top lip. A hare crossing the path was unlucky, especially for a pregnant woman who would miscarry or give birth to a child with a hare-lip.
In Cambridgeshire, a hare running through the streets was supposedly a sign that a fire was about to break out. One anonymous Middle English poem which Seamus Heaney has translated advises anyone who meets a hare to praise it. The poet rehearses all the names of the hare:

the quick-scut, the dew-flirt,
the grass-biter, the goibert
the home-late, the do-the-dirt

the starer, the wood-cat
the purblnd, the furze cat,
the skulker, the bleary-eyed
the wall-eyed, the glance-aside...

the stag sprouting a suede horn
the creature living in the crn
the creature bearing all men's scorn,
the creature no one dares to name.

After saying all that at your hare, an "apoptropaic" charm, which will ward off the ill luck, you can go your way in safety.
Witches supposedly changed into hare form to suck cows dry. Stories abound of wounds inflicted on hares being found the next day on a woman. It was claimed that a witch in hare form could only be killed by a silver crucifix or bullet. Just as the hunting mystique called the hare "Puss". Scottish "malkin" or "mawkin" means both cat and hare, and hares are strangely interchangeable with cats also in witchy contexts. A hare was a common witch familiar; in Irish tales witch-hares could only be caught by a black greyhound.
As Freud said, opposites resemble each other: the hare was both lucky or unlucky. Sailors considered hares so unlucky they could not be mentioned at sea. A hare's foot was carried as a charm to avert this, preferably from the left rear leg; losing the charm would prove very unfortunate. A hare's foot was said to avert rheumatism and cramps and help actors perform. The bone of a hare foot was carried as a good luck charm.
With all this mystique around the hare, hunting it was frought with weird belief. That, for instance, "The hare enjoys being hunted". It was called "John Doe".
Then there were the pets. " I kept him for his humour's sake", explains William Cowper,

For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

Cowper kept two hares and wrote "The Epitaph" for the worse-tempered, "Old Tiney, surliest of his kind". Tiney lived to eight, but always stayed wild:

Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night
He did it with a jealous look
And when he could, would bite.

"Gentler Puss" lived longer, but even when Cowper wrote "The Epitaph", Puss was pretty decrepit -

And, partner once of Tiney's box
Must soon partake his grave.

But Norman Nicholson's modern poem on Cowper's hare imagines the hare providing not so much entertainment as a wild visitation, the "cleft-mouthed kiss", the beauty:

She came to him in dreams – her ears
Diddering like antennae, and her eyes
Wide as dark flowers where the dew
Holds and dissolves a purple hoard of shadow.

And real hares?
Hares exist in every continent. from the Arctic to Mexico, India to Burma, Ethiopia to the Cape. We have two species in Britain, the European Brown Hare and the Mountain Hare or Blue Hare, which turns white in winter, and lives in higher latitudes. This is our original British hare. It was around in mainland Britain in the Paleaeolothic age; the Brown arrived in the Bronze or late Iron Age, probably introduced from the continent by human beings; like the rabbit.
Hares are in danger from the first day of their existence and rarely live more than a year in the wild. They do not burrow: they lie close in shallow "forms". The newly born leverets are fully-furred, have open-eyes and receive little parental care other than suckling visits by their mother. When frightened, they press close to the ground and become rigid and motionless.
Before flight, sight is the most important thing, Their large eyes cover a field of 360 degrees. Though popularly supposed to sleep with theri eyes open, they do close their eyes when they feel safe, and falling into semi-sleep. Deep sleep is rare, and rarely lasts more than a minute. They ar e speed animals and prefer the open ground of a moor and hills; in Britain they particularly like heather moorland, particularly those which are managed by burning in strips for red grouse.