Today, one would be extremely lucky to see a hare on Dartmoor, in 15 years I have seen two and these have been on the lower fringes of the moor. Devon as a whole is regarded as having a wide but local population of hares but Dartmoor numbers are considered as undergoing a serious decline since the early 1900’s. This decline of what hares there were was accelerated in the 1960’s and Dartmoor has gone from a population that was classified as widespread to one of, “serious decline”. The latest estimates from the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre clearly show that on large parts of Dartmoor the hare presence is simply non-existent, see ill 1. here. There are various suggested factors that have lead to this decline and on Dartmoor they are quite different to the national picture. Generally it is thought that changes in farming patterns and a decline in arable land are two of the main contributors but clearly on much of Dartmoor these do not apply. But the following factors do – see ill 2. here.
As with most animals, the moorland hare is regarded as being hardier than its lowland counterparts and as Ledger-Gordon noted, “They come of a strain both tough and straight-necked, and astonishing points now and again – particularly in “mad March” – testify to the prodigies of speed and endurance of which the sporting little “jack” is capable”. There was always a tradition that hares can run faster uphill as opposed to down which in a way is correct when compared to other animals. Because of its anatomy hares are good climbers and if being chased by a dog it certainly can go uphill faster which gives the impression of it outpacing in an ascending chase but then being caught up in a downwards direction. The moorland hare has, through chance or necessity, the ability to survive at higher altitudes than rabbits. There is an old moor saying that, “when the rabbits come, the hares go”, which would refer to them being unable to compete for habitat with the rabbit. Hence they have the ability to exist on the high moors thus removing the competition to the lower rabbit infested areas. One of the factors that lead to them being able to live on the high moors is their ability to travel longer distances when searching for food. Their breeding season begins around February to March and lasts until around June. It is early in the year that the hare can be seen displaying its strange ‘boxing’ antics and other weird things. It is this that has led to the saying, “mad as a March hare”. Unlike rabbits, hares always live above ground in ‘nests’ known as forms, these are usually hidden in long vegetation or growing crops. I always remember as tackers how we used to follow the combine as it harvested the corn in ever decreasing circuits of the field. The last block usually contained a few hares that had been driven deeper and deeper into the middle of the field by the commotion of the harvester. Suddenly when they decided that their receding cover of standing corn no longer afforded protection they would explode out in all directions.
There can however be no denying the fact that at one time the hare was a common site on Dartmoor as suggested by the existence of the Ashburton Harriers and the Dart Vale Harriers. Every April the hunting season would culminate in the annual hunt week which was when large numbers of sportsmen would gather on the moor and hunt ‘old puss’ the hare. The hunt made their headquarters at the Duchy hotel in Princetown and would go out from here each day. The highlight of the week was always ‘Bellever Day’, this took place on the Friday (Ladies Day) and became a holiday for many Dartmoor folk. Crossing describes how:
“It is invariably numerously attended, hundreds of visitors flocking to the tor. At this annual picnic on old “Bellever,” in 1901, the field was probably the largest ever known there. It was considered that fully a thousand persons were present, more than five hundred of them being mounted, while vehicles of every description were to be seen on the slopes around the tor.
Handled by George Perry, the huntsman, the harriers showed splendid sport. At one time during the day the pack divided, five and a half couple hunting one hare, and the remainder of the pack giving their attention to another. Both were run into, a circumstance never before known in the annals of the Dart Vale Hunt“.
The day was always noted for its fearless feats of horsemanship and hard riding some much so that it was common practice for the Princetown blacksmith to attend the event in order to make any emergency ‘cold shoe’ repairs as necessary. As with any Dartmoor outdoor event the occasion was always subject to diverse weather conditions. In 1891 it was reported that it was so hot that the ladies were dressed in, “thin attire” whilst at the same time there were ten foot snow drifts on the actual tor. Crossing also describes a hunt where a ‘Jack’ hare was put up above two bridges where it went up over Longaford tor, past White tor, down across Powder Mills bog, over to Bellever via Muddy Lakes newtake. From Bellever the hare made for the Prince Hall enclosures and went up over Round Hill. From here it went up Beardown and down by Wistman’s wood where the animal then ran back to Powder Mills bog and turned back to Two Bridges where the hounds ran into him, the whole chase covered about 12 miles.
Dartmoor legends and superstitions clearly show that for centuries the hare has held a mystical and in some cases feared place in the lives of the moorfolk. The biggest association that the hare has acquired is one with witchcraft with many tales of the ‘weird sisters’ having to ability to turn themselves into hares, see; ‘Bowerman’s Nose‘, ‘Old Moll‘, the ‘Witch of Dendles‘, and the ‘Witch Hare‘.
Amongst the old mining communities of Dartmoor it was always considered very bad luck to meet a hare whilst on the way to the mine. It has been said that some of the ‘old men’ would simply turn around and go back home rather than risking life and limb working down the mine that day.
On Dartmoor there is also the association with the ‘Three Hares‘ symbol – see ill. 3 here, which originally was wrongly identified as the ‘Three Rabbits’ or ‘Tinners Rabbits’. Recent studies suggest that this is an ancient symbol that can be found worldwide. Many of these traditions are said to date back to pagan times but and it is widely believed in some circles that the hare was introduced into this country by the Romans. However, there is excavated archaeological evidence of hare bones discovered in association with Neolithic burials such as that at Chippenham. The hare was certainly a well known animal to them as a mosaic excavated in Cirencester shows – see ill. 4 here.
The Hare lives on through several place-names such as Hare tor, Haresfoot Cross, Harepath, and Harethorn (Harrowthorn) Plantation. However, with the etymology of place-names things are not always as straight forward as they seem. The hare element can in many cases refer to the Old English word Har, whose definition is ‘grey’ or ‘old’ as in Harethorn. Harepath is a Saxon word herepæth which literally translates as ‘army path’ and normally refers to what was a main road used by the Saxon armies to cross the country. Haresfoot is the common name for the Trifolium arvense better known as Haresfoot clover so there is no direct link here. That just leaves Hare tor – see ill. 5 here, of which there are two such places on Dartmoor and as granite is both ‘grey’ and ‘old’ I know which root I would suggest.