7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 35

ountry Life

Vanishing hares

Peter Quince

)11 my recent walks around the stubble ields (now fast disappearing under the )lough) I have been struck by the total tbsence of hares. Usually we have a lot of )ares in this part of the country; they pop lp all over the landscape, either lolloping ilong at a leisurely pace or else displaying heir marvellous gracefulness at high speed f a dog should approach too close. At the /lament they all seem to have deserted the listrict. It is a phenomenon I have noticed )efore. No one seems able to explain it iatisfactorily. There is no accounting for :he mysterious comings and goings of hese animals.

I was already reflecting upon the )ddities of their be'naviour when I picked IP an interesting new book on the subject, be Leaping Hare (Faber, 0.50). The book S really a study of the strangeness of the 1rlima]; its authors, George Ewart Evans flo:1 David Thomson, have looked at its 4irious place in mythology as well as at the unexplained aspects of its behaviour in real life. Frankly, it's a bit shapeless as a Book; on the other hand they have 4ssembled a great deal of information, and 411 credit to them for finding out so much lbout one of the least understood of our

wild creatures.

I haven't found in it any final explanation of the hare's habit of vanishing from the scene. One possibility touched upon is that the hares all take cover in the woods for some reason. It is also pointed out that a hare squatting on its form, or immobile in the stubble, is as nearly indistinguishable from its background as it is possible to be; perhaps, therefore, they don't go anywhere but merely lie low for a time. In any case the authors of this book are on safe ground when they say, "It is probable that no other creature has raised so many unanswered questions or differing attempts at answers."

There is, for example, the question of whether or not hares can or will co-exist with rabbits on the same ground. Most country people hold the traditional belief that the two species will not fraternise, and Messrs Evans and Thomson give this their unqualified support. " Hares feed on almost every kind of vegetation, even seaweed, mushrooms, puffballs and the leaves of young conifers, but they will not graze on land used by rabbits." I can only add, from my observation, that the two species must be very nice in their drawing of lines of demarcation. I have seen hares feeding at surprisingly close quarters to rabbits; indeed I have 'at times been tempted to think that the old belief was simply false. I accept that it is not, but I suspect that hares and rabbits do not need to have much of a distance between them to preserve the peace.

Yet evidently when the peace is broken it is violently broken. Charles Welling, a Norfolk gamekeeper, is quoted as describing how rabbits sometimes deal with intruding hares. He reports that they kill the young in their form by biting the top of their heads. He tells how, revisiting a form with young hares an hour or so after discovering it, he has found them all slaughtered in this way, and has seen the rabbits on the spot finishing off the job. No wonder, as he added, that since myxomatosis the hare population has gone up by leaps and bounds (an appropriate term).

I am glad of it: I love to see them about, and the fact that much remains to be discovered about their mysterious ways adds to their attractiveness. Natural history is an admirable pursuit, but there are times when I feel that the niggling thoroughness of modern studies will soon lead us to a state where there is nothing left to find out, which would be dismal. I wish I could keep a pet hare, as poor William Cowper did — and that is another oddity, that such wild and timid creatures should prove on occasion to be so friendly to man. As Cowper wrote, "It is no wonder that my intimate acquaintance with these specimens of the kind has taught me to hold the sportsman's amusement in abhorrence; he little knows what amiable creatures he persecutes, of what gratitude they are capable, how cheerful they are in their spirits, what enjoyment they have of life, and that, impressed as they seem with a peculiar dread of man, it is only because man gives them peculiar cause for it."