One of the most delightful signs of the season has to be the sight of mad March hares batting at one another with furious, furry fists.
While this strange ritual may look like a hostile feud, it is actually a precursor to courtship. The pugilists are usually the females, who fend off amorous male admirers by boxing with them. It is also thought that female hares use this technique to test the strength of their prospective partner before deciding whether to choose him as a mate.
Hares are slightly larger than rabbits, with longer, more powerful legs, and larger ears with distinctive black tips. They are most common in grassland habitats like arable fields, grasses and hedgerows, as well as at the edges of woodlands. With many arable fields still bare, March is by far the best time of year to see these beautiful animals at their theatrical best.
For the most part, hares hide in long grass to conceal themselves from predators, but when threatened, they are capable of impressive athleticism. Hares are can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour at full pelt, and when threatened, they will leap sideways and backwards over hedges to escape their pursuer.
It would appear that being able to run at lightning speed is an excellent survival strategy. Hares are an ancient species, and fossil records show that their ancestors roamed the earth with the dinosaurs. It is thought that they were brought to the UK by the Romans, but have since become a naturalised species (meaning they are now established in the UK and are considered to be native).
Like other species, hares are thought to have been affected by changes in agricultural practices. Some evidence suggests that myxomatosis, the virus introduced to the UK in the 1950s to reduce the rabbit population, may have spread to hares. While the research about this concerning development is ongoing, we at the Wildlife Trust have been working to tackle the other issues faced by the species. We work with farmers across our two counties to help make their land more wildlife friendly, including providing cover and grazing for brown hares. We also create new habitat where possible, such as at our Barton Meadows nature reserve near Winchester.
If you’re hoping to get a ringside seat at a mad March boxing match, get up early to increase your chances and stay down wind so your scent doesn’t give you away.