Last weekend I spent a day lying in a field, deep in the heart of Norfolk, waiting for a brown hare.
Hares are notoriously hard to sneak up on, they’re really skittish and have huge ears to magnify the slightest sound, giving them time to make a 35mph get away. Any movement and they’ll shoot off into cover before you’ve opened your camera bag. With such a tricky subject I was glad to be joining wildlife photographer and hare specialist, Simon Litten. His day-long workshop gave me some insight into fieldcraft and into the hares and their habits, as well as taking me to a ‘guaranteed hare hotspot’.
Anyone that knows me will know that I’m not a morning person but somehow I made the 5.30am start. The weather was forecast hot and sunny so it seemed strange putting on a hat, gloves and coat but the first few hours were spent lying on our bellies on the ground, in the open with just a scrim net draped over our cameras to break up our silhouettes, hands and faces had to be covered as much as possible. After what seemed like ages the sun came up and a single hare came onto the path a distance away. He had a wash and I grabbed these two quick shots before the sound of my shutter sent him running for the orchard. He was almost out of my 100-400 lens’ reach (a 500 lens would be best and a full frame camera body with silent mode switched on).
Simon explained that the hares stick to favoured ‘runs’ so these are a good place to wait. They’re intelligent animals though – if they see something new they’ll give it a wide berth. We moved to the shade of a hedge, facing a run to wait for another few hours. The wind was blowing into our faces which carried our scent behind us. It was a usual spot for Simon, chosen to take advantage of the fact that a hare’s eyesight straight ahead isn’t great (their eyes are on the sides of their head and we were sitting in the shadows). Even so, frustratingly we saw hares but they seemed to ‘just know’ and hop off into the growing wheat.
A bad hare day
The weather was amazing, I’m not sure I’d have had the patience on a rainy day but the heat was a bad omen for hare action. When it’s hot they lie-low in their scrapes or ‘forms’ (hares live separately above ground and don’t have burrows like rabbits). Also they rest-up in the daytime, being most active at night, dawn and dusk (at the start of the breeding frenzy they’re around in the daytime more). By now the females should already have young leverets, which they carry from the form and feed elsewhere to stop foxes getting the scent of milk – all of which means they’re being extra cautious.
“The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”
Alice – Alice’s adventures in Wonderland
The expression ‘mad as a March hare’ comes from the crazy chasing, leaping and boxing witnessed early in the season as the female gives her suitors the run around, testing their fitness to mate which can lead to fights for female attention. (It’s often the females thumping the males away if they’re not ready.) They breed from Febuary-September and the females can conceive even when pregnant. This ability to breed so prolifically explains why they became fertility symbols in pre Christian times.
To me the males and females looked alike. Both have black tips to their ears and on top of their tails but Simon pointed out that the females had bigger bums (no comment). I think you need to be pretty familiar to tell – but I’m not splitting hares! And it’s not just the hares that are mad – I think trying to sit silently for hours sent me slightly daft too…