My personal recollections of watching the brown hare in Hertfordshire and the need for a ‘close season’…

I’ve often wondered exactly what factors are needed to create a naturalist. I mean, what exactly is it that causes that insatiable thirst for information and a life long appreciation of the natural world?

I know a number of those who’ve ‘found’ nature had a sense of feeling ‘different’ from other kids – a sense of isolation. Others with a love of nature suffered bullying as children and a few (like me) had what is often described as a ‘troubled’ background.

This troubled background stemmed from a violent and alcoholic father and it was the need to escape his wrath that pushed me out into exploring our countryside, rootling through hedgerows, splashing through streams and turning over logs and rocks studying the various creepy crawlies that lived underneath.

And, whilst doing so, the memories of the smashed-up living room, broken vases or the cruel words aimed at me lost their power and prominence in my mind. Friday nights were always the most dreaded and it became a ritual to ‘evacuate’ the home and, accompanying me on many a Friday evening ramble through the Hertfordshire countryside, was my little sister (and our dog, Lucy).

It was on one such escapade that we stumbled quite by chance into the ‘Kingdom of the Hares’.

Instead of following our usual route, we took a different fork of the footpath and followed it through the two vast fields of half grown rape (that aside from the bubbling skylarks overhead seemed devoid of any wildlife). We continued downhill going over a stile and followed the course of a small brook. Crossing this brook, scrambling up the bank and emerging on the other side was like entering a different world.

The farmland here was different. It was a mix of arable and, where the land rose up to a high ridge, the crops gave way to rich lush grazing pasture for dairy cows. In the middle of the hill, directly in front of us and resembling a Mohican’s haircut, was a thick hawthorn hedge from the centre of which grew a couple of ivy-clad, ancient oak trees.

One particular evening we quietly took our places in the weed filled border that edged the field and sat with our backs pressed up against the trunk of a crack willow and patiently waited for the usual performance to begin. The hares were unbelievably tame and would often approach (if Lucy wasn’t present) within feet of us.

As it got darker and colder my sister whined, ‘They’re not gonna come tonight. Lets go home.’

‘No,’ I assured her. ‘They’ll be here. You just keep looking.’

We intently scanned the fields of newly planted maize and then, slowly before our very eyes, a few lifeless ‘clods’ of earth suddenly morphed into living hares.

Lucy (our little red Dachshund) had noticed them too and gave a throaty grumble.

‘Ssssssh, Lucy,’ I hissed while gently tapping her nose.

‘Look!’ I whispered to my sister. ‘Over there.’

‘Where?’ My sister followed my gaze. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she gasped. ‘I see them now. Wow!’

A bold hare with large, forward-facing ears confidently powered across the field towards another that lay quite motionless (still in ‘clod of earth’ mode). However, as the moving hare drew closer the ‘clod’ suddenly sprang to life, leapt up and started to run with its antagonist in hot pursuit. As the pair ran they stumbled over yet another ‘clod’ that (as if miraculously transformed by their touch) turned into a hare and eagerly joined in the merriment and pursuit.

Round and around careered the three hares before the pursued creature abruptly stopped her fleeing and turned to face her aggressors. She rose up and, before our very eyes, the pair began to box!

It was something I’d often read about – the antics of the ‘Mad March Hare’ – but never dreamed I’d ever witness.

‘Did you see that?’ I whispered excitedly.

My sister nodded. ‘Are they hurting each other?’ she asked with her voice filled with concern.

‘Nah,’ I replied eager to allay her fears. The irony of what we were trying to avoid seeing at home and were now witnessing in the fields wasn’t lost on me either! ‘It’s just their courtship,’ I explained. ‘The female hare probably isn’t ready and she’s letting the males know.’

‘What?’ she asked incredulously. ‘The female one is the one doing the boxing?’

‘Yup,’ I replied. ‘Hares had girl power long before the Spice Girls!’

Nearly twenty years have passed since my first encounter with the brown hare but it was with those memories fresh in my mind that I returned to those very same fields to see if I could relive that experience. Sadly – as is the case with many of a farmland species – the hares appeared to be no more.

Along with the disappearance of the hares, the cutting down of the old willow trees and the grubbing up of the wide, weed-filled border (that had provided such a comfortable hare-viewing spot), the hills had also changed. They were no longer cloaked in verdant green pasture for the cows had also vanished and their lush grazing had succumbed to the plough; crops were now grown to the very edges of the fields. Once again the same old factors seemed to be at play; the very same pressures that are crippling our wildlife up and down the country – the heavy use of pesticides, the greater turnover of crops and the regrettable demise of our smaller fields and hedgerows. I also noticed a lot of motorbike tracks that had churned up the ground. It seemed illegal motocross was still a scourge of the area.

But, now, on top of all these problems, demands and encroachments, I discovered this species also has to contend with hunting – on a grand scale. Hare shooting – it appears – is a very lucrative business with shooters regularly being charged £200-£300 a day to bag hares on sporting estates. Last year it was estimated that 350,000 were shot.

Now, I would never wish to go shooting hares but I can see why landowners and farmers (especially in these harsh economic times) would wish to encourage this lucrative sport – after all, they are constantly being urged to diversify. Besides, I would rather see the land utilised (and properly managed) for this (with its added benefits for other species such as grey partridge, corn bunting, yellowhammer and lapwing) than used for even more housing. However, what I fail to understand is the lack of ‘close season’ for this species. It is the only ‘game’ animal which can be hunted all year round which means that pregnant females and those nursing young can, quite legally, be shot and the species’ catastrophic decline (down from an estimated 4 million in the 1800s to the present total of 750,000) surely cannot be helped by the loss of such valuable young and breeding stock. What makes the whole affair all the more ridiculous is the brown hare’s inclusion in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

Now, there’s a whole number of reasons put forward in favour of the ‘open season’ on this animal including the most popular one; the hare has been found to breed in every month of the year so how could you impose a ‘close season’? But, why can’t we follow the common-sense approach of the Scots and afford protection for the most common period of breeding (February to September) or do profits come before animal welfare? Surely the argument is a simple one; is it right to shoot pregnant and nursing hares? Is it right to leave dependant leverets to die?

This doesn’t look like careful management of a species; it looks like greed. How on earth can 350,000 hares being shot a year (out of a population of 750,000) be sustainable when one has to also take into account those vast numbers that are poached, especially when those caught doing so are only given such derisory fines or sentences. Add to that to the numbers being poisoned by pesticides or losing their home to housing developments and you have a potential catastrophe for the species’ survival in Britain.

The hare throughout the centuries has often been seen as having mystical and magical properties. I think our forefathers were certainly onto something as, given the pressures exerted on this animal (from all sides), I’m amazed that we still have any left. Imposing a ‘close season’ is the very least they deserve and not doing so seems complete madness.