Country Matters: The fur flies as hares tussle
THE robin flew straight at me as I caught the morning sun. I had been on laundry duty after disposing of much garden debris.
I had expected the tiny bird to land on my hat. He is a friendly fellow. Having observed me keenly he opted for a safer landing on a roof level with my head. I addressed him, and he did not take a blind bit of notice.
Next landing was the top step on a path, as if he were expecting a few crumbs from the master - but he prefers to watch sharply for turned soil. Lo and behold, suddenly there was a worm dangling from his beak. Chop. Chop. But then another shadow fell so he crossed a wall to eat undisturbed.
Mr Redbreast is familiar, as is a wing-damaged blackbird that struts his stuff when there are cut apples available. But I would have preferred to have seen a hare, as I once did jumping over a poet's legs as he scribbled in his note-book. Or, better still, a leveret or two, adventuring youngsters finding sweet morsels in a poly-tunnel they had penetrated in their wanderings from their grassy 'form'.
But such sights are elsewhere. The hares are not in my private wilderness but further westward where they step lively, unperturbed by foxes or dogs and cause complaint only to patient gardeners who discover in the dawn's early light that their sweet vegetable shoots have been nibbled or nobbled. (I have been known to urge small investment in suitable netting protection.)
Once, from a passing train, I saw some hares in sporting fettle leaping and boxing in a field. The fur was flying. This behaviour is one of nature's most iconic wildlife spectacles. 'Mad as March hares' is an old saw, but the March bit is not entirely true as this sparring can go on for much of the year.
It is usually assumed that the fighting - which can be serious as they have spurs on their front legs as well as sharp claws - is between males tousling for the attentions of a female, but it is usually a doe warding off a would-be suitor. And her nastiness can be extreme.
The animals jostle and tumble over one another and sometimes when a couple is fighting and the male is jumping over the female she can snap at his testicles if he is in the wrong position, according to a wildlife documentary maker, Martin Hayward Smith, who has spent a year filming English brown hares in Norfolk.
Can you blame her, may well be asked. Statistics show that hares can mate up to 20 times a day and the female can become pregnant twice at the same time - almost a breeding machine.
Leverets are born fully formed, with fur and agate eyes wide open and grow quickly to become one of the fastest land mammals, reaching speeds of 80kph if running from predators such as foxes or dogs.
But the Irish Mountain Hare (lepus timidus hibernicus), our unique breed and with us since the Ice Age of 10,000 years ago, is a vulnerable and declining species, mostly due to habitat change and altered agricultural practices. Those vast tracts of monoculture are expanses of growth useless to hares once a certain height is reached. All that breeding activity then may be vital to ensure survival of the timid creature "to lick the dewfall from the barley's head", as the pastoral poet John Clare put it.