The number of brown hares in the UK is thought to have dropped by as much as 80% over the past hundred years, meaning that there are now less than a million of one of our best loved mammals. Which makes reports that both myxomatosis and the deadly rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) may have crossed over from rabbits to hares doubly alarming.
When myxomatosis was introduced to the UK in the 1950s to control the rabbit population, it succeeded in killing all but one percent in a matter of just three years. Last autumn a surge in the death of brown hares, particularly in East Anglia, gave rise to fears that the fatal viral disease had infected them, putting them at risk of being wiped out altogether.
Then earlier this year came the news that two cases of RHD type 2 have been confirmed in Dorset and Essex. With no natural immunity to either disease, the days of this iconic lagomorph are starting to look numbered as things stand in the UK.
The brown hare was already under threat from intensive agricultural practices like the spraying of pesticides which has affected their food supply and habitat. Not to mention illegal activities like hunting, hare coursing and lamping. It’s listed as a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework but these new setbacks could lead to the eradication of the UK’s fastest land mammal which would be a massive loss for our natural world.
Hares, often associated with sex and fertility, pop up in many of the world’s great mythologies and religions.
Considered sacred in pre-Christian times, they were worshipped by the Celts who would never kill them except at the Iron Age ritual Beltane which marked the arrival of summer on 1st May. The fierce queen of the Iceni tribe Boadicea (sorry but she’ll never be Boudicca to me!) was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans.
In parts of Wales it was once thought that hares changed sex every month, and in ancient Egypt where they were linked to the moon’s cycle, the hare was seen as male when the moon waxed and female when it waned.
Indeed the hare and the moon are intrinsically tied; the animal is frequently depicted in art as being captivated by the orb. Pagans believed that seeing a moon-gazing hare would bring growth and abundance, new beginnings and good fortune. In medieval England May’s full moon was known as the Hare Moon. Witches were believed to be able to shapeshift by moonlight into the form of a hare in order to steal milk and butter.
In Catholicism a white hare is sometimes placed at the feet of the Virgin Mary to represent her purity. The image of the Three Hares that share three ears appears not only in Christian paintings but also in the sacred art of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam.
What’s in a name
Despite the hare’s enduring popularity, it’s nevertheless at the root of a number of less than endearing expressions: hare lip, hare-brained, mad as a March hare…
A hare lip is so-called because of the resemblance to a hare’s cleft lip and in the 18th century the cleft was considered to have come about as a result of relations with the devil, the hare symbolising lust in addition to fertility.
The hare’s tendency to freeze in the face of danger, despite the speed with which it can run, together with its spring antics have given it a long (and unfair) association with foolishness. It’s actually the females, or jills, who initiate the crazy boxing ritual associated with courtship when they get fed up of being chased by a jack looking to mate. #thisgirlcan!
As for nicknames, take your pick from Aunt Sarah, Old Sally, Katie, maudkin, poor wat, puss, bandy, wintail or, my own favourite, scavernick.