We saw their tracks in the February snow, sensing energy in the mass of overlaying prints. Swirling, twisting and doubling back, they were evidence that brown hares, Lepus europaeus, had been having some wild party. Now, with the snow gone, I have to rely on sightings to know what they are up to, but brown hares are clever at hiding themselves, even out in the open.
I watch one crossing the field. Every time the hare pauses, it stops beside a clump of dead thistles. Without seeing it move, I would never spot it among the dull stalks and the faded rushes. Sometimes it flattens down, camouflaged as a molehill or a heap from the muckspreader.
Another hare streaks across the grass, legs at full stretch like a brooch. It gives a little skip, sees me and stands on its back legs, front paws dangling, black-tipped ears twitching back and forth, before effortlessly leaping the stone wall and disappearing into the wood.
They have already started some tentative boxing. By mid-March, “mad” hares will be less wary as their mating instincts take over. Then the males will chase the females full pelt through these upland fields, racing between peewits and curlews.
When a doe has had enough, she will spin round and ferociously pummel a male with her powerful front paws. He’ll respond and the sight of hares – sometimes two competing males – standing on hind legs, beating at each other, tufts of fur flying, is one of the sights of spring.
With their top speed of 40 mph, it’s exhilarating to watch a hare sprinting round the perimeter of this wide field like an athlete on a racetrack. Once the spring fever is over, it will be harder to spot, lying up by day in a “form” – a small depression hidden in the meadow. Leverets are born fully furred and with eyes open.
For the first month, they are left in separate forms a few metres from where they were born as safety from predators. They gather only at sunset to be fed. So it was with joy last July that I watched two leverets nuzzling their mother, skipping round her and playing through the tall backlit summer grasses.