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Two hares

As mad as a March Hare? The origin of a harebrained saying 


There is a misconception that the common hare, arguably brought to the UK by the Romans, is somehow unhinged or deranged. This is, of course, a fallacy.

There is evidence that their ancestors were common in North America 30 million years ago during the latter stages of the Paleogene period. A 55-million-year-old fossil of an early lagomorph delineates a group of animals that includes both rabbits and hares. Further back still, another group of extinct mammals, zalambdalestids, share a close evolutionary relationship with lagomorphs and these are more than 85 million years old. This puts the origins of the hare in the Cretaceous period alongside the dinosaurs.

It’s no fluke that the hare has survived so long and prospered. They can reach speeds of 48mph (77kph) which is as fast as (or hopefully faster than) their natural predator, the fox. The phrase ‘breed like rabbits’ applies to hares as well. Annually, female hares can produce up to four leverets (the name for the young) as many as four times a year.

The best time to catch hares frolicking in their native habitat is during the peak of their breeding season in March. If you’re lucky, you might even see the hares ‘boxing’ for mating rites. It may seem as though the females are fending off the males, but it’s just as likely the former is in the process of selecting a suitable partner in a test-of-strength contest. In either case, it’s pretty much agreed that this seemingly bizarre behaviour has earnt them the ‘mad’ label.

Lewis Carroll certainly popularised the image of the lunatic hare in his 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but the phrase has been in common use for hundreds of years in Britain. One of the earliest examples appears in 1385 from Geoffrey Chaucer in The Friar’s Tale.

Sir Thomas More, the celebrated Lord Chancellor who was beheaded under the orders of King Henry VIII, wrote, ‘as mad not so much as a march hare, as a mad dog’, in his essay The Supplication of Souls in 1529. Around the same time, 1548 to be precise, ‘harebrained’ entered the Oxford English dictionary, its definition corresponding with the supposition that hares are crazy.

You might have thought that a creature that has inspired writers, poets and artists would be revered but, despite protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, the number of hares in our countryside has fallen. In the early 19th century there were as many as four million hares in the UK. Today, there are fewer than 800,000 and this decline is almost exclusively on account of human beings.

Urban development has claimed over 1,120 km2 of arable land in the past three decades and, even though illegal since 2004, hare coursing (a blood sport involving dogs chasing hares) is still popular in some communities. Between 2016 and 2019, over 4,000 hare coursing incidents were recorded in Lincolnshire alone.

Astonishingly, the hare is the only game species in England and Wales not protected by a closed hunting season. Therefore it’s still perfectly legal to shoot hares all year round, even if they are rearing leverets, leaving the already threatened next generation vulnerable to starvation or attack from predators. Which is harebrained, if you’ll pardon the pun.