Sunday 25 August 2019

'White sergeant' commands respect

Rare Hare: ‘Dashing white sergeants’ are found up North
Rare Hare: ‘Dashing white sergeants’ are found up North

Joe Kennedy

THE 'dashing white sergeant' was grazing where the landscape rises into the little hills that march to the boundary of ancient Ulster.

The edge of the North's historic face is permanently stamped where the archdiocese of Armagh begins at a bridge crossing the Mattock on its way to feed the Boyne.

A white hare here was last observed during the hardy weather of 2011. Changes are difficult to spot. Some slight colour mixing might be seen amid brown heads and bodies on mornings of frost and a threat of snow. But, unlike Scotland, where hares have been making landscape-influenced changes to winter garb, a white hare here is a surprise.

Winter weather has a bearing on animal camouflage but whereas the Scots or north English hares (called mountain or blue) may change to white during autumnal moult, winter whitening here is usually partial and all-white specimens are rare.

The Scots hares have a bluish under-fur and are sometimes called 'variable hares' because of colour change. The white fur is good camouflage for hillsides and a protection from predators such as Golden Eagles in the Highlands, and opportunistic foxes.

Here in Ireland there are also brown hares, mostly in the North and introduced from Britain in the 1800s. But the Irish hare is a sub-species of the Arctic hare and has been around for about 10,000 years since the Ice Age.

It is smaller than the brown with a bigger head and more reddish fur. The two species can overlap.

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

The Irish hare's tail is all-white. The animal has short ears; the brown's ears are long and will pass the end of the nose when turned forward.

Dr Fairley once pointed out that the hare on the old Irish three-penny 'bit' is not the Irish animal at all but the brown one! Red faces all round, but who remembers - it was a long time ago.

An old friend, the late Davy Hammond, folklorist and film-maker from Belfast (with whom I occasionally shared a tincture of Bushmills and a verse or two of Rocks of Bawn), had an old Ulster ballad about an elusive hare that no dog could catch. This "puss" cocked a snoot at canines and any fox with notions. Not that a fox has much chance catching a hare, apart from leverets cowering in a grassy 'form'.

Also, the fox is not stupid. Once a hare lifts its head in a field, it realises he cannot outrun it and so slinks off having to make do with grass, leaves and any available bush berries for a meal.

Foxes are partial to berries; the Song of Solomon mentions, 'the little foxes that spoil the vines'.

Hard weather and the looming New Year is not a happy time for sheep farmers who fear the worst from foxes at lambing time as ewes and their young dice with death away from home-farm paddocks. However, 'dashing white sergeants' can show foxes and dogs a clean pair of hind legs in the border fields.

Sunday Independent

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