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12 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 12:14pm

The graceful dance of shape-shifting hares

Hares should be ubiquitous on these hills and gorselands at dusk, enchanting us with their elegant play.

By John Burnside

After two years of city life, the biggest adjustment I had to make when I came back to rural Scotland was in driving around my part of Fife on the country roads. I had almost forgotten about pheasant life and random Mammalia, not to mention the usual human impedimenta, from quad biker to shirtsleeved agrichemicals rep with hands-free headset.

The most sensitive of these tests, however, also turned out to be the most pleasurable and, over the past month or so, I have been constantly on the lookout for any of the hares that are my truest neighbours. I immediately remembered them from before (they would frequently visit our garden, creatures of such grace that the boys and I would fall silent whenever they appeared) but I had let slip from my mind how perfectly camouflaged they can be against a backdrop of hedgerow or drystone wall. On the roads, I still feel my heart in my mouth when I catch a shiver in the headlamps at dusk and I know the hare is there, loping ahead of me, following its own way into the night – a way that, at this point, just happens to coincide with mine.

The books will tell you that hares are mostly nocturnal creatures and I suppose, on average, they are; but that doesn’t stop one leaping into my path at pretty much any time of day in these early-summer weeks, for this is the time of the “mad” hare – “March”, in some places, though not this far north, according to my observations. Most seasons, on this particular hilltop, the madness is confined to May and early June, which can be hazardous at dawn and dusk, when the light (if there is any) is soft and golden brown on the verges and hill roads, much like the colour of the animal.

Not long ago, I found one dead by my gate – roadkill – and couldn’t resist kneeling beside it to stroke the cold, tawny fur a moment, before I carried it away and laid it on the verge (a kind of sky burial in miniature, performed for all manner of roadkill in this family, to no other end than the avoidance of further degradation on the road). Even though it had been dead for hours, I still felt the life of it somehow, the energy in the hind legs, the keenness of the eye. Most of all, a trace remained of what I always find in the hare’s living face: a kind of thoughtfulness, a sense of being so fully and attentively in this world that there could be no need for an alternative.

It was no accident, then, that hares were sacred to the Picts and Celts who once inhabited this part of Scotland. Now, though, at a time when the word “sacred” seems quaint, at best these elegant beings are in significant danger, with a decline of over 40 per cent recorded since 1995.

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Further north, the mountain hare – smaller than its southern cousin, with a grey-brown summer coat that turns pale grey or white in winter – is probably even more threatened. There, it is persecuted by the grouse shooting business and has also suffered from the loss of its habitat and other causes. According to the Hare Preservation Trust: “In one case, a refrigerated van [was] brought over by a party of Italian guns who intended to shoot 1,000 mountain hares and sell them in Italy to pay for the shooting holiday.”

None of this will come as a surprise, I imagine, though I can’t help being surprised at how little those with any power have done about it. Even if numbers were restored to their 1995 level, it would not be enough: hares should be ubiquitous on these hills and gorselands at dusk, enchanting us with their elegant play and with how, if only for a matter of seconds, one or other of a group will shimmer and shift, in the golden air, into some new and inexplicable form, the way that our ancestors described millennia ago, when human beings still believed that the other animals involved us in their dance. 

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe