Last weekend, I spent a day lying in a field, deep in the heart of Norfolk, waiting for a brown hare.
Hares are notoriously hard to sneak up on, they’re really skittish and have huge ears to magnify the slightest sound, giving them plenty of time to make a 35mph get away. Any movement and they’ll shoot off into cover before you’ve opened your camera bag. With such a tricky subject, I was glad to be joining wildlife photographer and hare specialist, Simon Litten. His day-long workshop gave me some insight into fieldcraft and into the hares and their habits, as well as getting me to a ‘guaranteed hare hotspot’.
Anyone that knows me, will know that I’m not a morning person. Yet somehow, I made the 5.30am start. The weather was forecast hot and sunny, so it seemed strange putting on a hat, gloves and coat, all of which would be needed. The first few hours were to be spent lying on our bellies, out in the open. In preperation a scrim net was draped over our cameras, to break up our silhouettes, then hands and faces were covered as much as possible. After what seemed like ages, the sun came up and a single hare hopped onto the path a distance away. He had a wash and I grabbed two quick shots before the sound of my shutter sent him running for the orchard. He was almost out of my 100-400 lens’ reach (a 500 lens would be best and a full frame camera body with silent mode switched on).
Simon explained that the hares stick to favoured ‘runs’ so these are a good place to wait. They’re intelligent animals though – if they see something new, they’ll give it a wide berth. We moved to the shade of a hedge, facing a run, to wait for another few hours. The wind was blowing into our faces which carried our scent behind us. It was a usual spot for Simon, chosen to take advantage of the fact that a hare’s eyesight straight ahead isn’t great. Frustratingly we saw hares but they seemed to ‘just know’ and hop off into the growing wheat.
A bad hare day
The weather was amazing, I’m not sure I’d have had the patience on a rainy day, but the heat was a bad omen for hare action. On hot days they lie-low in their scrapes or ‘forms’ (hares live separately above ground and don’t have burrows like rabbits). They also rest-up in the daytime, being most active at night, dawn and dusk (at the start of the breeding frenzy they can be spotted out in the daytime). By now the females should already have young leverets, which they carry from the form and feed elsewhere, to stop foxes getting the scent of milk – all of which means they’re being extra cautious.
“The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”
Alice – Alice’s adventures in Wonderland
The expression ‘mad as a March hare’ comes from the crazy chasing, leaping and boxing witnessed early in the season, as the female gives her suitors the run around, testing their fitness to mate, which can lead to fights for female attention. (It’s often the females thumping the males away if they’re not ready.) They breed from Febuary-September and the females can conceive even when pregnant. This ability to breed so prolifically explains why they became fertility symbols in pre Christian times.
To me, the males and females looked alike. Both have black tips to their ears and on top of their tails but Simon pointed out that the females had bigger bums (no comment). I think you need to be pretty familiar to tell – but I’m not splitting hares! And it’s not just the hares that are mad – I think trying to sit silently for hours sent me slightly daft too…