“The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad — at least not so mad as it was in March.” – Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.
The character of the Mad March Hare in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is based on the old English saying ‘mad as a March hare’. This comes from the behaviour of the hare during the first breeding season of the year, which coincides with the start of spring in Western Europe.
During the early days of spring, the hares are seen in large groups acting in an increasingly erratic manner, including leaping vertically, boxing, chasing and biting other hares. This coupled with the fact that during much of the year the hares are shy animals and are difficult to spot makes their strange behaviour appear borne of madness to casual observers.
In reality, this behavior is a year round occurrence which occurs whenever females are ready to mate. This behavior is far more readily observed in spring for a number of reasons.
Firstly, during the harsh winter months, most females will not have been fertile, either looking after the final batch of young from the previous year, concentrating on finding food, or still too young. As a result, the vast majority of females are ready to mate at the same time, congregating in large groups.
Secondly, the males tend to create harems of the females at this time of year. They will bite and chase off subordinate males who get too near and box with other dominant males to win other harems. However, not all the females are willing to mate at the same time, and will box with the male to show their unwillingness to mate.
Finally, the hare is most often observed by humans in the spring time as the crops in the fields and meadows are still low to the ground after the winter. This coupled with the large groups makes their appearance in March all the more obvious.
The behaviour and appearance of hares has led to them being both revered and despised throughout history. The Hare was sacred and linked to a number of gods in many religions from cultures as diverse as the Native Americans, Indians, Egyptians and the Chinese. In Anglo-Saxon mythology the goddess Ostara, the rising sun, is depicted with the head of a hare. She is associated with spring, fertility and resurrection and is a friend to children. From this legend comes the story of her transforming her pet bird into a hare. This hare then laid brightly coloured eggs, which she gave to children as presents. The tradition of giving coloured eggs still exists in Easter today.
As with many animals revered in the older religions, Christians changed hares into animals of evil. They said that witches transformed into hares in order to suck the blood of cows, and any wounds inflicted on a hare would be found on a woman the next day. However, old folk tales persisted throughout the centuries, leading to a number of conflicting legends presenting hares as animals of both good and bad omen.
A number of hares, including the recent acquisition pictured above, are in the collection at the Booth Museum. We also have hares (as well as a large number of other animals) available for loan to schools and other organisations. Please contact the Booth Museum for details on borrowing.
Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences