It is the beginning of March and I am taking my usual walk up on top of the Cranborne Chase, a high area of rolling chalk grassland which marks the border between Dorset and West Wiltshire where each year it is possible to see up to a dozen or so hares. I have left it a little late this year. One side of the track is set out in rapeseed crop and the yellow flowers stand tall enough to hide the hares, but the other side of the path is still chalk and low grass. Brimstone butterflies are plentiful.
I love the challenge and humour involved in looking for hares. It is amazing how well hidden they are as they lie flat against the ground in a hollow scrape, often with only their reddish hue or their lovely long ears that stand out. The trick is to follow the curvature of the land with your binoculars and look very carefully, and then look again. It is often a pair of protruding ears that gives their game away.. and once you have got your eye in, the more you see. A field full of ‘nothingness’ can suddenly have three or four hares racing over its surface or playfully boxing and chasing, and it always make me laugh. There is something very endearing about hares, they are not the prettiest of creatures with their bulging 360 degree eyes, but they are incredibly interesting.
Timid and graceful they are invested with connotations of folklore, devilry and witchcraft. Perhaps because, apart from in the spring, they are solitary and most active at night, they are credited with sinister magic powers giving harelips to unborn babies, being mad in March and being a bad omen if they are ever mentioned at sea.
They are not indigenous to Britain but originate in the steppes of Central Asia. They arrived here via the Romans and spread out and colonised lowland areas relatively quickly pushing our smaller mountain hare to the uplands. Changes in agriculture and their value for food ensured their success.
With their reddish/ yellowish hair, black tipped ears and long rangy legs they can reach speeds of up to 65mph. They live entirely above ground but numbers have declined due to intensive agriculture, the removal of hedges and enormous fields. Leverets are born in a scrape in a field and have no protection as their mother goes off and returns only once every day to feed them. I once read that their ancient name was ‘stag of the stubble’ which is certainly fitting as I watch them today.
The Cranborne chase has a quintessential English countryside feel, wide open spaces and blackthorn hedgerows tall enough to obscure the fields. Today there are lovely violets and cowslips, yellowhammers, newly arrived whitethroats, queen bees and exquisite bee flies with their amazing long proboscis. There is also a red kite gracing the skies with its aerobatics. I walk down to the pub in the village for lunch and a glass of wine and then make my way back home. It has been a good morning; full of lovely things.