Spring fever is in the air with mad hares and queer coots, says Pip Webster, who tells us what to look out for around the cut
Spring fever is in the air and it’s time for a bit of madness for some species along the cut
Spring fever is in the air – birds are singing in their bright breeding plumage as all the waterside wildlife celebrates surviving another winter.
Some of the craziest behaviour can be seen in the open fields alongside the towpath where hares are leaping around having boxing matches. It isn’t just males fighting – the females are fending off over-amorous advances of spurned lovers.
It is the start of the breeding season and the normally shy, reclusive hares are easier to observe before the grass has started growing. Cousins of the more familiar rabbit, hares are altogether bigger, tawnier and rangier with longer legs and distinctive black tips to their long ears. They are Britain’s fastest land mammal and can outrun most pursuers, swerving and zig-zagging to outwit them.
The word hare derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hara” which means to jump and being ‘hopping mad’ in March just enhanced the sinister impression made by this solitary animal. Often seen to be active by moonlight, hares have long been invested with connotations of devilry and witchcraft and credited with magic powers. At sea, nobody must mention the creature’s name – I trust it’s safe to do so on a canal.
Long ears, very long hind legs and short tails are just some of the peculiarities that characterise the Lagomorph (from the Greek ‘hare-shaped’) order of mammals.
Both hares and rabbits have a split upper lip, or hare-lip, although it is only in the hare that the gums are visible. They have an extra pair of teeth, known as the peg-teeth, behind their front two upper incisors; and they can open and close their slit-like nostrils by moving a fold of skin. They also eat their own droppings, an adaptation to a herbivorous diet that gives their digestive system a second chance to break down the food as it again passes through.
Hares live entirely above ground, crouching by day in hollows (known as forms) in grass or shallow scoops in the earth, and feeding mostly at night on grass, young cereal crops and other plants. The doe gives birth to her three or four leverets in these forms, where they are left to lie low on their own all day, the mother returning just once every 24 hours, generally just after dark, to feed them. Fully-furred and able to run from birth, they are still very vulnerable to fox and stoat predators compared to the less fully developed rabbit kits that are born in a burrow.
You may be “as mad as a March hare” on land, but on the water you would be “as queer as a coot”. Outside the breeding season coots form large flocks on stretches of open water, but come March, nesting pairs have to establish a territory large enough for their breeding and feeding needs.
Frequent boundary disputes give the birds a deserved reputation for aggressive quarrelling. The white frontal shield plays a prominent part in the threat display as the bird stretches its neck low over the water then fluffs up its charcoal plumage and slightly raises its wings.
If it comes to a fight the birds will face one another and almost lie back on the water as they flail out with feet and wings. There is much splashing of water and a clatter of loud metallic calls (“kwok, kwok” – from which the bird gets its name).
Nests are built of dead leaves and the stems of rushes and other water plants. They are often placed in shallow water among concealing vegetation, either anchored to the bottom or just floating.
Coots usually have just one brood: you shouldn’t look for the rather unappealing coot chicks, with their bare claret and blue facial skin and a tatty ruff of gingery down around the neck, until the end of April or May.
Join the spring celebrations, but don’t go too mad.
Coots get very territorial in the breeding season