Saturday 15 December 2018

Country Matters: That brilliant flash of the snow hare

The Irish hare on an old threepenny piece
The Irish hare on an old threepenny piece

Joe Kennedy

Shakespeare writes about snow on black feathers: Juliet declares that Romeo "will lie upon the wings of night/ Whiter than new snow on a raven's back".

Robert Frost, passing under his New England trees, is alerted by a little shower when "a crow shook down on me/The dust of snow from a hemlock tree". This gave his heart a change of mood "and saved some part of a day I rued".

Wood pigeons didn't wait to bless me with winter particles; they took off in a cloud of mist. And then, quite soon, there was change and what an old Kerry friend used to call a "pet day" emerged and the sun warmed the ground around scattered frozen packages.

I had been awaiting news of white hare sightings in border counties' cold, wild landscapes but my usual observer had taken off to south Kerry, wise man! No white hares there.

When, last year, I learned of a "dashing white sergeant" (from an English north country dance tune) in Louth there had been a gap of five years since a flash of winter fur had blended with the snowy landscape of north Leinster.

All-white hares are rare creatures and small changes in winter coats are difficult to spot from a distance. Some colour mixtures might be seen among brown heads - but, unlike in Scotland, where hares with landscape-influenced changes in winter garb may appear regularly, a white or pied hare in an Irish field is a rarity.

The season influences camouflage, but whereas the Scots and north English animals (called mountain or blue) may begin colour changes at autumnal moulting, few Irish hares display a Santa touch.

There are two species of hare in this country. The brown fellows were introduced from England, mostly to northern areas in the 1800s for hunting purposes.

However, the native Irish animal - a sub-species of the Arctic hare - has been around since the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago! It is smaller than the brown, has more reddish fur and a bigger head.

Zoologist Dr James Fairley points out that the clearest differences between them are in tail colouring and ear length. The brown hare's tail is brown on top but, as it is tucked down while running, the white under-parts are hidden.

The Irish hare's tail is all-white. It has shorter ears than the brown, which will pass the end of the nose when turned forward - the Irish hare's barely reach the nose-tip.

Dr Fairley has also pointed out that the hare on the old Irish threepenny bit (who remembers this half a sixpence?) is NOT the native animal at all, but a brown one!

An old friend, the late Davy Hammond, folklorist and BBC film-maker, had a ballad in his vast repertoire about an elusive white hare that no dog or fox could catch.

"In the lowlands of Creggan there is a white hare/As swift as the swallow that flies through the air..."

Creggan is in Tyrone and after a great chase by men and dogs, including some who came in cars with "prize greyhounds", the poor hare was surrounded. But with one final great leap she sailed over her pursuers and raced off free into the countryside.

Sunday Independent

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