Not So Mad After All

“ As mad as a March hare” so the old saying goes and at this time of year they certainly seem to be a little bonkers with their racing around, boxing and generally erratic behaviour.  However, it isn’t spring madness but sex that is on their minds – rather than being ‘a little bonkers’ it is their desire for a little bonking that drives them to the verge of insanity.

Here in the secret valley, as elsewhere, the hare population in some years is greater than others.  It looks as if 2022 is going to be a good year for them for there were eight in the field by our house a couple of days ago.  This gave great opportunities to watch them from relative comfort as they hurled themselves at one another and galloped around the field at great speed.  Of course, as soon as I reached for the camera they disappeared almost as if they thought that filming hare porn was rather distasteful and embarrassing.  After a while I realised there was one keeping well-hidden watching me. 

The hare forgot to hide its ears…

This ability to disappear has over the years given rise to many superstitions and old wives’ tales.  They were thought to have mystical properties too and I did on one occasion experience this myself.  I was visiting the ancient, subterranean earthwork, New Grange in Ireland.  If ever you were going to have a mystical experience it would be here for you enter the tomb by a long, low and very narrow passageway before entering a large stone chamber.  With almost no natural light it takes a while for your eyes to grow accustomed to the semi-darkness.  The friend that I was with said that she thought she’d fleetingly seen two hares which, of course, was impossible for we were blocking the only exit.  Back outside, we came to the spot where the two hares should be and there, at our feet they rested, two baby leverets, completely unafraid of our presence.

The entrance to the prehistoric burial chamber at New Grange
The two baby hares were nestling in the grass…

The hare has been revered and feared in equal measure throughout the world.  It was considered an ill-omen to meet one upon the road; there are myths concerning the cycles of the moon and the hare both connected to lunacy.  It has been much connected with ancient art and can be found in prehistoric rock paintings; in England in the Cotswold town of Cirencester (originally a Roman town known as Corinium) we have the magnificent Roman Hare mosaic now on display in the local museum (link here).  Discovered fifty years ago, it dates from 400AD and shows the animal feeding.

Hares are considered to be very nervous and flighty animals that also have the capacity to do huge amounts of damage if they should enter gardens or orchards.  Some years ago, one took up residence in a garden I cared for and I found, at least in this instance, that this was quite untrue.  Admittedly, if anyone entered the garden it would quickly hide but It accepted me as part of the garden and would hop around my feet quite happily.  It must have been feeding within the garden but I never found this to be a problem.  It is always a huge privilege when a wild creature trusts you and to be able to observe one at such close quarters especially so.  I always hoped it would raise a family there but I was more than satisfied with having just the one.

‘My’ hare would rest beneath a flowering jasmine but come out to join me in the garden
The hare would hop around my feet…

My’ recent hares finally couldn’t resist returning to their antics. Outrunning one another with their great speed and ultra-quick turns they, at last, didn’t notice me reaching for the camera. Although tricky to capture on film I finally succeeded.  As I did so, I thought of the thirteenth-century poem that I was supposed to recite to avoid bad luck.  The Names of the Hare, written in Middle English, lists seventy-eight names – With no memory for lengthy poems, I had to rely upon my previous friendship with the hare and the hope that would hold me in a special, protected place.  It seems to have done so but just as the myths claim, today when I went to bid them ‘good-day’, not a hare was in sight.

Success!
Time to go!

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Courting Ravens

Before Storm Alex hit us this weekend, bringing with it over a month’s worth of rain in less than 24 hours, the weather had been exceptionally benign.  For several days the skies were clear, the sun shone and there was just enough of a cool breeze to remind you that autumn has arrived and revving up to take us into winter.  In short, it was perfect conditions for walking and, so it seems, also for courting.

The secret valley in the Cotswolds

No, I haven’t committed to a new relationship for I’m quite happy with my old one!  I’m referring to our local pair of ravens, recently joined by several others.  They have taken up residence in the shelter belt of conifers, mixed softwoods and brash that stand sentinel on the ridge.  From there they have a commanding view of the full length of the secret valley.  On my walks, they have been chattering noisily to one another in their croaky, almost primeval sounding voice.

First signs of autumn in the secret valley

Whenever I hear the sound of a raven, I’m transported back to Exmoor for it was there, as a sixteen-year old, that I saw my first one.  In those days (the 1960s) ravens were rarities only found in the remotest and wildest parts of the British Isles, taking refuge there after decades of persecution had exterminated them from kinder landscapes.  I was resting on the heather moorland high above Farley Water, a narrow and very beautiful river valley inhabited only by sheep and the wild Exmoor ponies and red deer.  Watching a black bird flying lazily along the valley far below me it suddenly body rolled and flew on its back for a few yards before righting itself to fly on until out of sight. 

Farley Water, Exmoor National Park in 1968 – not that it’s changed at all since then!

These body rolls, along with a wide range of acrobatic swoops and dives, are indicative of courting displays, usually seen in spring.  I’m sure my lone raven in Farley Water was doing it for pure pleasure, or perhaps it was practicing them just to ensure it got it right in order to impress the gals when they appeared!  Ravens do, in fact, pair for life and can live for ten years in the wild, sometimes as long as fifteen or more.  This longevity, as well as the millennia they have been on Planet Earth, has given rise to many myths and traditions.  Here in the UK, there is a long-held belief that if the ravens that live at the Tower of London should ever leave, both the Crown and Britain will fall to a foreign invader.  They are cared for and protected by the Royal Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders.  A much older belief common to the Abrahamic religions is that the raven was the first creature to be released from Noah’s Ark.

Ravens are now very much more common in the UK, having reclaimed much of their former territory and it is estimated that there is now well over 7,000 breeding pairs.  They are also one of the most widespread of bird species being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  It has recently been discovered, however, that when ravens colonised America those on the California coast became isolated – probably due to an Ice Age.  As a result, they have evolved into a distinct race genetically, whereas the other US birds are more closely related genetically to the birds of Europe and Asia.

Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster in front of Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London [photo credit: DebashisM]

So how do you recognise a raven from any other black crow?  Well, firstly, it’s size.  It is enormous in comparison.  Secondly, it’s voice which is quite distinctive once you’ve learnt to recognise it.  The raven is, however, a great mimic of other sounds:  twice I have been confused by the sound of a fencepost being knocked into the ground with a heavy mallet and by a small terrier dog yapping from high up in the top of a tall Scot’s Pine tree!  It’s tail, if it should fly overhead, is also another way of telling it apart for it is quite diamond shaped in appearance.  Finally – and not one I have seen mentioned in bird books – the wings make a distinct flapping noise much in the same way as a swan’s does.  Good luck with your raven spotting and don’t be alarmed by all the stories of them being birds of ill omen.  If you see one, it will make your day.

Raven at the Tower of London [photo credit: Drow male]
Depiction of ravens at the Tower of London 1883 [Source: Wikipedia]