20 MAY 1922, Page 8


IT is an accepted truism that hares and rabbits do not, as a rule, abound in the same locality. The reason is simple; their requirements, though similar in part, are not identical. It is not the case, as some suppose, that they cannot exist amicably together, or that the rabbit, directly or otherwise, ousts his bigger but less sturdy kinsman. It would be possible to name many districts here in the West Country where both species are exceedingly numerous, and have been as long as the oldest residents can remember. I have in mind a certain common in South Somerset where, curiously enough, the pursuit of either animal was seriously impeded by the super-abundance of the other. The country was hunted a great deal by a pack of rabbit-beagles, which could never be induced to stick to their lawful game on account of the hares which continually got up in front of them ; while the Master of the harriers, which also came there, made frequent complaint that his hounds could do little, the ground being so foiled by rabbits. The hare is essentially a creature of the open, and though fully sensible of the advantages of heavy cover in emergencies, depends mainly upon her own limbs for self-preservation. For example, she revels in low-lying, marshy country, where the rabbit, who must have dry banks in which to burrow, cannot exist. She can, more- over, thrive upon richer and more luscious fare, though she, too, does best upon rough, hilly regions, particularly where the bilberry plant and wild thyme abound. Again, rain and cold, so dreaded by the warmth-loving rabbit, do not trouble her in the least. She will squat serenely upon the bleakest ridge, or on a bare fallow, exposed to the most pitiless rain-storms, without exhibiting the slightest sign of discomfort. Indeed, the country people have a curious notion that a " Jack ". sits in a wet furrow for choice, and the bigger the splash with which he springs from his form the tougher he will prove. The idea, though exaggerated, of course, has its origin, like most similar traditions, in natural history. It is a known thing that the does dislike water almost as much as cats do, and any hare found sitting in a particularly wet spot is tolerably certain to prove a male. Whether the common brown hare of the lowlands and hills of the South differs fundamentally from her Northern representative, the mountain hare—blue or white, according to the season—is a matter of opinion. Every race is, of course, subject to certain variations in form and habits due to the different surroundings in which it lives. White hares were at one time by no means uncommon in East Devon, but I have not heard of one now for several years, and suppose the strain to have been exterminated. In their case, of course, the snowy coat was perennial, rendering the wearers singularly conspicuous on the green hill-sides in early summer before the bracken had attained sufficient length to cover them, though, indeed, this was somewhat offset by the profusion of white flint which is scattered freely over the slopes in question. These hares, it should be remarked, as a rule proved exceptionally easy game. They seemed soft, for some reason or other, as black rabbits usually are, and never made much show against hounds.

The peculiar length of a hare's hind legs, which enable her to climb faster than any ordinary pursuer, is too well known to need comment. This, incidentally, serves another purpose, of doubtful benefit to the animal and of certain disadvantage to the sportsman. As she runs with head tucked low between her shoulders, the tilting hindquarters effectually screen the vital parts, so that, unless one is near enough to aim at the back of the head, it is scarcely possible to stop a hare that is running straight away from the gun. It is never fair to attempt a long tail shot, the chance of killing clean being too remote to justify the risk of merely breaking hind legs—an almost inevitable consequence. Broadside shots, if laid well forward, may be taken from a sporting distance quite legitimately, the hare being one of the most thin-skinned creatures on four legs. One has only to watch her across two or three fields to see instances of this. The careful, shrinking way in which she approaches her fences is enough in itself. Indeed, she never " breaks " a fence unless compelled to do so, choosing gaps and gateways wherever possible, as the gentlemen with the long dogs and gate-nets know only too well. And this recalls a rather curious story which, being perfectly authentic, is perhaps worth relating. In the wilds of West Dorset there lived and died some years ago as masterful an old poacher as ever set a snare. Hares were rigorously preserved for hunting thereabouts, but this troubled him no more than did the circumstance that he lived actually 3vithin sight of the kennels and carried on his nefarious trade under the very eye of authority. Night work was his speciality, and for this purpose he had as an ally a lurcher of more than human sagacity, for which for many years he paid no licence— a circumstance, again, that mattered nothing, as the dog was never forthcoming when his premises were searched by the police—a periodical occurrence. Neither, in- cidentally, were the pair ever seen to set forth upon any of their felonious errands in company. The old man would go out at dusk, ostensibly for an evening walk, to all appearances alone, and not until reaching the trysting- place, perhaps miles away amongst the hills, would he be joined by his uncanny four-footed accomplice. What strange telepathy existed between man and beast, or how the wishes of the one were conveyed to the other, is matter for the psychologist. When accused of his misdeeds he usually fell back on the assertion that his dog would not look at fur, volunteering to demonstrate the same if desired, and when challenged to do so upon sundry occasions by the M.H., the village *squire, and others, always made good his words. The, sceptical individual, it was found, might hop " a hare under the very nose of the old lurcher without exciting the slightest sign of interest on the latter's part, nor could he be induced to take up the chase though apparently invited to do so by his master. As a general rule gamekeepers and even police fought 'shy.of the old malefactor, who was reputed to be a rough customer at close quarters, and never unarmed when nefariously employed—an impression which he, for obvious reasons, took care to encourage. He was once caught, however, in a distinctly remarkable manner. The Lord of the Manor—one of the few men he feared—being away, he determined to venture a bold night raid upon the home farm, where hares abounded. So, accompanied by a nephew—a very promising pupil—he set out about mid- night with this intent. Not seriously anticipating inter- ruption, the night being dark and wild, they proceeded • towards the ground best suited to their, purpose without observing over-much caution, until, when crossing a large, open field, they were startled by voices near by, one of which they recognized as belonging to the Squire's bailiff.

The younger man, incidentally my subsequent informant, took to his heels inconsequently and made good his escape ; the elder, of stouter heart, also less fleet of foot, lay flat upon the ground, hoping to escape detection in the gloom. For the moment the plan succeeded. The enemy passed on to the farther end of the field ; then, presumably seeing or hearing something, faced about and came straight towards him. Discovery being inevitable, nothing remained but to run for it. This he did very creditably, but was seen, thanks to somebody chancing to flash a light just then, and an exciting chase began. Wishing to "break view," the old man made for the nearest gate—not that by which he had entered the field.

It stood open, and without pausing to think he rushed headlong through, encountered some obstruction, tripped and fell heavily, and a few seconds later his pursuers, consisting of one or two of the Squire's workmen, headed by the bailiff, were upon him. The bailiff, in particular, was delighted with the capture. " So it's you, Mr. Chubb, is it ?' Master will be glad to knew your business up here in his fields at this time of night ! " and more to the same effect, in which his com- panions joined heartily. But the old poacher, strange to say, seemed in no way concerned. His attention, indeed, was divided between his own bruises and something on the ground which seemed to demand minute inspection, and for the moment he vouchsafed no answer. At last, however, the scrutiny ended to his satisfaction, he turned upon his captors. That's . all right enough, gentlemen," he said, in the quaint brogue of the West. " But, unless my memory sorely -desaves me, this 'ere net "—indicating the sub- stance over which he had fallen—" baint of my setting, and I'm thinking there's others mightn't find it convenient to account for their doings this night."

It was too true. It was, indeed, a hare-net in which the old poacher—who had set some thousands in his day -had himself been entangled, and the respectable employees of the Manor were- themselves engaged in the same unlawful .practice. The cry of a hare, usually occasioned by pain or some- times extreme terror, is a haunting sound enough, but not, in my opinion, so distressingly human as sentimental writers have represented it as being. I know it well from many years spent in the field, and, though it is not a sound that one need wish to hear, I cannot say that I have ever heard anything approaching the human in its tone. That, however, is a mere digression, and an entirely negligible item in the natural history of the species.

Hares are not prolific creatures, as rodents go. Or rather, perhaps, they do not multiply at the same alarming rate as do their next of kin. They produce rapidly enough, it is true, but this is in a measure negatived by the dis- proportionately heavy toll taken of the young by bad weather and natural enemies. Also a certain percentage of the animals born, as most people who have observed domesticated varieties probably know, are not fertile. Early in February rival Jacks begin to box, and in April or May the young arrive. The leverets number from one to four, and are laid down almost anywhere, in little grassy depressions or amongst the early bracken or spring corn being favourite places. I have found them in bare furrows and in tangles of gorse and brier, so can safely state that in this respect nothing in the nature of a regular rule is observed.

They possess neither the wonderfully recuperative powers of rabbits as a race nor their individual hardihood and tenacity of life. A hare that has once been really hard pressed by hounds scores but a negative triumph if she escapes their teeth, as she seldom, in my opinion, recovers from the shock and after-effects of such an experi- ence. Over-heated and thoroughly " done," she lies down at the first opportunity, in less than no time becomes too stiff to move, and either perishes from exhaustion or reactionary chill or falls an easy victim to some enemy. I am well aware that some people—sportsmen who never study their game apart from the chase—may question this assertion. It is true, none the less, as I have proved beyond question. Here is just one instance of many that might be recorded.

One morning, after an unusually hard run, the writer and others saw a thoroughly beaten hare enter a little furze brake covering scarcely two rods of ground, front which nobody expected to see her emerge alive. Hounds at that point lost her completely, however, though every- body was convinced that she could not have quitted the brake. Later on in the day, for my own satisfaction, I requisitioned a furze-cutter who was at work near by and got him to " pare out " a part of the thicket. This he did, and in the heart of the bush, under sonic age-old stumps, through which hounds could not penetrate, a disused rabbit-hole was discovered, and from this we drew poor " Puss," stone-dead and stark as a board, with the mud of the chase still fresh on her fur to refute any suggestion of mistaken identity.