MEET THE AUTHOR John Lewis-Stempel
The farmer and writer tells us why he couldn’t resist focussing on hares.
What’s your most memorable encounter with a hare?
I’ve seen hares ‘box’ in moonlight, I’ve held a hare in my arms, but my standout meeting with a hare happened when I was seven, and lived in a house cut into the hillside. One morning, while washing my face, I looked out of the bathroom window – and there, directly outside, was a hare looking in, washing its face.
Why did you choose the hare for your third species in this illustrated series?
The hare is one of the defining, immemorial British animals. It evokes our countryside as perhaps only the oak can. If we have hares, we still have our British nature. So, the hare is an environmentally and culturally important species. Also, isn’t the hare just plain wonderful? It fascinates us because it is our fastest land animal, it intrigues us with its mad March courtship, it beguiles us because its offspring are poster cute… what is not to love?
What makes hares so mysterious and figures of myths and legends?
Hares are nocturnal (primarily), and they are secretive, and they are sorrowfully solitary. In the absence of knowledge, speculation about the hare abounded, helped by the fact that hares are, frankly, as bizarre as they are beautiful. They have the curious, almost human habit of ‘boxing’ in early spring, while their body parts seem borrowed from other animals: donkey’s ears, lion’s eyes, lurcher’s legs. Over the millennia, the hare has been considered shape-shifter, fabricated on the moon (according to the Chinese), a witch’s consort, and more. Even today, when former countryside animals, such as the fox, have taken up town-dwelling, the hare remains determinedly rural and a rare sight for most people. It retains its magic.
What do you think should be done to help the declining populations of the three hare species in the British Isles?
Well, the major cause for the decline of the brown hare, our commonest hare, is change down on the farm – notably the switch to autumn cereal planting and to ‘silage’ grass fodder instead of oldfashioned hay. The result? The hare suffers famine and disturbance during the breeding time. The fix isn’t rocket science: it is providing undisturbed cover and good grazing. Also, the brown hare needs a ‘close’ season when it is not shot. Finally, and let’s not shirk this, we need to consider protecting all our species of hare from the modern proliferation of mammalian predators. Especially ‘mr fox’. MS
Hares have often inspired folklore tales and myths.
The Private Life of the Hare Doubleday, £9.99