I can see them; hunkered down against the heavy rain are four brown hares, exposed to the elements in this everlasting Norfolk field. Their thick fur buffers them from the creeping cold of steady rain and shapes their hunched bodies, giving them the appearance of clods of earth left from when the field was last ploughed. Why should they be sitting like this, seemingly exposed both to the elements as well as to potential predators? I guess that while their thick fur affords protection against the elements, their keen eyes keep them alert to other dangers. Motionless, but ever watchful, they sit out the day.
Despite their size, hares often go unnoticed, even in an open landscape such as this. Much of the day is spent in a shallow scrape, known locally as either a ‘form’ or a ‘seat’. The hare will dig out the scrape, positioning her head at the narrow end, just above the level of the ground, her body and powerful hind legs tucked into the wider end of the form. Here she will remain, relying for protection on a combination of camouflage and, if flushed, speed. To have a hidden hare explode from underneath your feet can prove quite a shock, the hare leaping away from its form in one long fluid motion. Quickly up to speed it dashes away, the ears held erect unless the hare is moving at full speed, the tail horizontal and the powerful hind legs stretching out ahead of the forelegs to strike the ground with long strides. Satisfied that the danger is gone, the hare may then circle around in a wide arc to return to her original position in the form.
As winter relinquishes its hold to the coming spring, the brown hares undergo a spring moult, their new coat in place by the end of June. This time of the year also sees an apparent upsurge in breeding activity, though the females are actually fertile from the very start of the year through into August. The openness of the land, with crops not long emerged, opens a window on hare behaviour as it is acted out across our exposed arable landscape. In a few weeks time dominant males will guard fertile females, chasing away lower rank males if they come too close. The ‘boxing’ that is so strongly associated with this image of the mad March hare is not (normally) part of this male bravado but stems from a unreceptive female putting her suitor in his place. Such behaviour is a matter of weeks away. Perhaps, like me, the hares are waiting for spring proper to arrive and to lift their spirits from the deep melancholy imposed by such dreich weather.