Mad March for Old Big-bum

by Heather Elvidge

For most of the year, a glance across a field will reveal a solitary hare, feeding quietly. But in the spring, hares gather in groups to graze. Suddenly, two of them will begin leaping, chasing, and even punching – it’s speed dating, hare style.

While all this is going on the other hares watch calmly. The frenzied pair is a jack and a jill, testing out each other’s suitability for breeding. This uncharacteristic behaviour inspired the saying, “mad as a March hare.”

Brown hares are muscular and long-legged, with huge black-tipped ears and a dark tail. Larger than rabbits, they’re also much faster – a fleeing hare can reach 45mph. They are thought to have spread across Europe as people cleared forests for agriculture, arriving here around 4,000 years ago.

Since hares don’t hibernate, they need a year-round source of food. This was easier to find in the past when crops were planted in rotation and hay meadows, which provided different types of grass and wild plants, were common.

Since the Second World War the brown hare population has declined markedly, and the animals have disappeared from the southwest of England. Fortunately there are still places where brown hares thrive.

Sacred hares

There’s something about hares. Perhaps it’s their strength, their agility, their unexpected speed, or the way they look you in the eye. Perhaps it’s because they can seem so strange and otherworldly. For whatever reason, hares have attracted a great deal of folklore.

Ancient societies linked them with moon deities. Hares represented rebirth, rejuvenation and intuition – the “light in darkness”. People saw a hare on the moon’s surface, as we see a man-in-the-moon.

When fleeing, a hare makes many abrupt turns, which made it a suitable animal for divination. Before engaging a Roman legion in battle, Boudicca is said to have released a hare so that her druids could read the omens from its zig-zag path.

Its pagan past ensured that the medieval hare would be demonised. To speak its real name was to tempt fate, so people found alternatives. A Shropshire verse from the late 13th century lists 77 nicknames, including Fast Traveller, Friendless One, Scutter, Old Goibert, and Old Big-bum.

Obviously it was a bad sign for a hare to cross your path – a pregnant woman must tear her petticoat, or her baby would be born with a harelip. Dreaming of hares meant that you had enemies. If a hare was seen running through a village, it was a warning that one of the houses would catch fire.

For a time both hares and cats were known as “puss”. Yorkshire witches had hares as their familiars, and some took on the shape of hares to go about in secret.

But hares, or rather, parts of them, could also be beneficial. In the 16th century the study of classical sources revived an old treatment for rheumatism, colic and cramp — a hare’s foot, carried in the pocket.

Over time, a few superstitions about hares were transferred to cats. Rabbits acquired others, which is probably how the rabbit’s paw came to be thought lucky. Today, the rabbit’s foot is the most familiar lucky charm in the USA.