There is a misconceived general view that if you hunt something you must hate it. Of course, hunters will tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are serious about hunting an animal, you should try to understand it, its life and its behaviour. Ultimately, it will make you more successful in your endeavours. The more you study an animal and the more you hunt it, invariably, the more you respect it.
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I first started hunting hares twenty years ago (and continue to do so now within the Law) and I can honestly say that I love them. They are beautiful creatures. They can look so fragile – nothing but legs and ears – but, on the other hand, can be so strong and agile. They come in a variety of colours from wintry grey brown to striking gingery-red (I talk about the Common Brown Hare). Their size can also vary from tiny fluffy leverets in their form that look like new born kittens through to the mature male I saw in Wiltshire, that was at least 3 inches taller than any of the beagles that were nearby – she nonchalantly lolloped-off untroubled by the hounds and, indeed, my presence.
Most of the general public think hares and rabbits are much the same. They don’t believe you when you explain that hares don’t burrow but live in nest-like indents in the earth, and are one of the fastest land mammals in the UK. They can also be incredibly devious and seemingly intelligent. In the past, I have seen hares do the most remarkable things whilst being hunted by hounds. In Northumberland, our quarry approached a stone wall, hopped onto the top, ran about 300 yards, and hopped back down again on the same side. Of course, the poor old beagles ran at the wall, jumped straight over it and then proceeded to cast themselves on in an attempt to find the scent – now in the wrong field and in the wrong direction. In Cambridgeshire, I saw a pressed hare enter a pasture with some bullocks in it. The bullocks were disturbed by the sound of the hounds approaching and started to move around their field. The clever hare always ran slightly ahead of them and the exited as they paused at another gate. This left the puzzled beagles in a foiled and hocked up field none the wiser to where she had gone and with some curious young cows to deal with.
I always experience a slight sense of sadness when the beagles chop a hare. It seems unfair but, then, perhaps it is natural selection in action. However, hares can be remarkably brave when sitting tight. I hunted one to the base of a tree and there the hounds checked. Round and round, I drew them but she seemed to have vanished. I even looked in the tree! Finally, as the hounds were getting bored, the sun came out and I saw the hare’s eye glint. She was sat as still as a rock in the roots of the tree. Again, I drew the hounds around and then again but she sat tight and they did not smell or sense her. So, off we all went – it seemed unfair to deliberately move her from her bolt-hole. Many a time in the past, I have seen the pack draw over a hare only for her to jump up behind them and run off unobserved. Hares can brass it out.
All this said, they can appear to be remarkably stupid too – just like us all. I recall a newly ploughed jet-black field near Cottenham in the 1990s with fluffs of brown and russet sticking out like sore thumbs because the hares were unaware that they looked so obvious against the dark alluvial soil – even the beagles (who have not been bred for their visioning abilities) saw them immediately as they unboxed – leaving no time for a glass of port at the meet. We hunted a hare in Berkshire in 2002 for well over an hour. During that time she had hardly been viewed because she kept running the edge of ditches. Towards the end, the hounds lost her and we cast around but to no effect. As I gave up hope, there was a splash from nearby because the hare had run slap bang into a ditch – their forward eyesight is not good – and so the hunt continued.
Finally, we all beagle and harrier huntsmen know that hares are witches and can disappear without trace. Our medieval forebears did actually think this because they never found male hares – the jack hare has the ability to squeeze his testicles up into his body and thereby run unimpeded by his balls! There is a hill on Salisbury Plain surmounted by a small copse. Prior to the ban, the number of hares that I have watched slowly creep up to the copse dead-beat pursued by the hardy beagles only to vanish is too embarrassing to recall. My ashes are to be scattered there when I am gone – it must have an invisible stairway to heaven (the only chance I have of getting there!).
26 September 2014