Seeking hare, seeing more

Outdoor Living

FRAGILE BEAUTY Found only in Ireland, the Irish hare faces many challenges, from silage cutting (which kills many young hidden in fields) to hare coursing. Its population has declined significantly in the last 25 years. 
Pic: Joachim S. Müller/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

March. The month of the hare.
I went out to find one, knowing well that where there is one spring hare there ought to be another.
Spring is filled with diversions. For one thing, red deer have been on the move. I found footprints where there should be none and followed them to the river. They crossed the shallow stickle between two deep pools. I followed. Water found a hole in my boot.
They led me squelching through acres of bracken, where scrubby willow had been deeply scored by antler bone. I found a wallow, no less. Male red deer use the same spot year after year as a soiling pit, rolling over in the mud to cool themselves, or to make themselves more black than their very reputation. I would know where to come in the autumn, when ritual wallowing is part of the rut.
The trail grew long. Into conifer dark, it went, and from there to the open moor. I found droppings galore, alongside large, elongated slot marks that told me one of the animals ahead was a very big stag indeed.
I followed the river then, sticking close to the bank through each meandering curve, ducking under low branches and jumping drains. I crossed low fields and cut through another small wood, climbed a grassy knoll, found a boreen that I didn’t know existed and stumbled across a pair of geese.
Greylags. Wary birds, these. Large in the body and with a decided plumpness about their appearance (as if dripping in fat) they have good reason to be. Their grey plumage fits their wild nature, although their pink legs and orange bill give them a slightly comedic look.
But out here, miles from anywhere? They normally nest in colonies, in grassy fields close to still water.
On seeing me the pair raised their heads and gave soft warning calls. Part of me wanted to get close, but aware there might be eggs involved, the other part won over. I left them in peace and went to cross the river to find better pasture and, I hoped, my hare.
On low ground I found rolled armfuls of winter grass, newly gathered bedding ready to be taken into the local badger sett. Badgers still get bad press and are blamed for spreading bovine tuberculosis, despite recent research that appears to absolve them of responsibility in this regard.
The sett was in the lee of a high bank, far above the level of the greatest flood. Of the half-dozen holes at least four are presently in use, with signs of bedding being renewed and replaced. There will be cubs within the sett, though how many is anybody’s guess.
Older, more prominent females are the principle breeding stock. In an effort to exert dominance these will kill the offspring of first-time breeders. It seems unnecessary, harsh and cruel.
This is the time that young males are evicted from their home territories. We often see them on the road, especially during damp nights when earthworms, their favorite food, tend to gather on the tarmac.
But the hare! This is perfect country for him. The fields are small and filled with herbs. There is wide land and rough land, rushes enough for him to hide and expanse enough that he might run.
And there! In that very acre, just watch him go. He is as the wind, first one way and then the other, swift as you like at first, then an easy gallop like a horse that has already won.
Ahead is the female, stretching and lithe. I see her stop, sit tall with ears erect, watching for her suitor. When he shows up away she goes as if it is a game, those black-edged flags now flat along her back.
Lengthening days act as a trigger for many species. While hares will mate throughout the year – and this charging about the place is almost always a precursor to that event – courtship is intensified from now until May. This is so much the case that if one hare is seen there are generally one or two more in the vicinity.
Perhaps we might see enough from the car window as we rush from A to B. How much better it is to get our feet on the ground. Six miles, most of it previously untraveled, made a happy afternoon with rich reward. If we don’t do it now, then when?

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.