The Goddess of the field
A hopper of ditches, a cropper of corn, A wee brown cow with a pair of leather horns.
As a youth I always took a chance at a hare as it burst from its form in the stubble or potatoes and went streaking away. The sexton?s old hammergun flew to the shoulder with the confidence of youth and more often than not, puss would roll over in a blur of flailing legs and blown fleck. If outward bound, I could hang her in the shade of an elder bush where flies do not go, to be collected on the homeward journey. Otherwise she had to be carried in the net-fronted gamebag or slung across the shoulder in the old manner in a rope noose, but being young and strong that was no hardship. My father would do the skinning and my mother the cooking, for jugged hare was popular in our house in those meat-starved post-war years.
Reuben the Norfolk farmer lay a-dying but, at 92 years old, he was ready to meet his maker. His family clustered round to catch his final words, a gem of wisdom gleaned from almost a century on the land. His sons bent low hearkening to the thin breathing; might even now the old boy tell of a new will or some unguessed at hidden treasure? Summoning his strength the old fellow lifted his head and drew a rasping breath. The listeners cocked their ears and leaned close. ?Allus look an oat stubble for a heer?? he gasped, and expired. It was his most valuable secret.
Hares are curious and magical beasts upon which medieval venery bestowed many names: the swift as wind; the skulker; the animal that dwells in the corn; the white-bellied one, and so on. She is sister of the cold moon and familiar of the hearth; in China one does not say ?The Man in the Moon?, but ?The Hare in the Moon?. She was said to be male and female at the same time, is a ruminant that grazes but chews no cud, eating her food twice by gnawing half-digested pellets of dung. Unique among beasts she seeks no shelter but lies out on open land in a scrape or form. Many a farm boy has spotted her thus and fired a shot but she scampers off unscathed, that cunning earthwork protected her vitals. She deposits her young here and there on the eggs-in-one-basket principle, suckling them at night; a timorous beast she will see off a fox that threatens her leveret.
A born runner
She runs away uphill, never down. She can see behind her but not very well ahead. She never walks but hops, making her look ungainly but, when fleeing, her powerful back legs send her streaking away. Sometimes she runs for pure joy for hares used to race taxiing planes on a grass airfield in Ireland, lining up like sprinters ready for the off. She can swim the wide dykes of the saltings and leap like a salmon; one cleared an 8ft wall. She can be started in woodland and in March dances and boxes on the windy heaths until the fur or fleck drifts on the wind. A group of hares is known as a huske.
She was familiar to witches. Many a crone was cruelly treated in the dark days because cottagers believed she turned into a hare under the full moon and caused cattle to abort or fall sick. Anyone knows that it takes a silver bullet to kill her. A hare or cat oft was buried under churches and houses to ward off evil spirits. Queen Boudicca released one from the folds of her cloak on the day of battle to show her army which way to go. A hare foot in your pocket brought good fortune and was also used by goldsmiths to sweep up gold dust from their workbenches.
According to T. H. White, (author of The Once and Future King), she was the favourite quarry of Master William Twyti, huntsman of Uther Pendragon. He talked calmly of great boars and stags and showed you his scars, but mention a hare and he would thump his glass on the table and discourse on this amazing animal declaring that ?you could never blow a menee for her because the same hare could at one time be male and another female while it carries grease and croteyed and gnawed which things no beast on earth did except it. Hares may be decoyed with a hare pipe or by mouth, vied the noted Lincolnshire poacher Mackenzie Thorpe. Many and cunning were the ?engines? and subterfuges designed by ploughboys to catch her, for she was a great prize in a poor man?s pot. A choice turnip left in a field, or parsley seed secretly sown on a stubble drew her like a nail to a magnet.
She had her favourite tracks, so nets could be strung across gates or snares set in smeuses and a broken coated lurcher sent to start her. Sometimes old-fashioned deception was enough. Spot a hare in the form and, avoiding eye contact, walk round her drawing ever closer until you can throw a coat over her. When the squires sat on the Bench enforcing the Game Laws they themselves had enacted, a poor man might be sent to the colonies for seven years for less.
A patchy population
The mass slaughter of hare shoots has declined. They accounted for hundreds of hares in one day in a free-for-all massacre of the innocents organised by farmers worried for their crops. The heavy shot aimed by inexperienced farm boys pecks at the fur as poor puss wails like a spanked child and escapes swinging a broken back leg. For reasons unknown, her population now is patchy, some places having none and others showing signs of revival. Warm summers are kind to her. Few shoots permit puss, (or Sally, or Old Sarah), to be fired at as she streaks through the line, a rule more for safety than conservation. Many a peppered gaiter may be credited to her deceptive speed.
She remains legal quarry, though coursing her with greyhounds is outlawed and the scourge of illegal coursing has declined. Shoot her if she is close enough, for she is good to eat if carefully prepared though some modern palates find her flesh too strong. As you take aim reflect that you are shooting at a visitor from the frozen moon, one who capers crazily in its beams, confidant of witches, goddess of ancient peoples, favourite of Dark Age huntsmen, environmental barometer of the health of the land, the cat who lurks in the broom, the starer with wide eyes, spirit of the hearth, one who saw a Roman army defeated, was responsible for sending good men to Van Diemen?s Land, companion of and defender from evil spirits who could be shot only with a silver weskit button.
I lost my enthusiasm for hare shooting in middle age: I ate one a year and was happy to shoot her for the pot, but she carried too much baggage. The organised hare shoot became shameful to me, but now people on bird shoots tend to leave her alone as much because of the no ground game rule as anything, a rule that implies that the modern Shot is not to be trusted with anything not up in the sky. I prefer those shoots that say you may shoot a hare if you are sure you can kill it and on you will take it home and eat it.
A sportsman happy to have the blood of such a marvel on his hands had better aim true and be quite sure he is prepared for the consequences. It does not do to upset a witch?