This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
For some weeks, the hare languished under the effects of the falcon's blow. When her leveret was old enough to find food for itself, she rested, forced by the wound to live quietly in hiding, till the scar healed and life once more became enjoyable. But she always bore the marks of the talons, and so was spoken of by the country folk as "the slit-eared hare".
The superstitious recalled the tales of a by-gone century, and half believed the hare to be a witch in disguise, for she seemed to bear a charmed life, and, though known everywhere in the parish, successfully eluded to the end all the devices that threatened her. No matter how artfully the wire noose was set above the level of the ground in her " run," she brushed it by and never blundered into the treacherous loop. A net failed even to alarm her: it might almost be imagined that she became an experienced judge of any such contrivance, and knew every individual poacher by the method with which his toils were spread across her path.
Not having bred during the year in which she was born, Puss had thrived, and weighed about nine pounds in the late autumn of her second season. But according to popular opinion she was much heavier. Will, the cobbler, who was fond of coursing, stoutly maintained, to a group of interested listeners in the bar-parlour of the village inn, that she seemed like a donkey when she escaped from his greyhound into the wood.
Family cares again claimed the hare's attention in July; and, having taken to heart her experience with the peregrine, she left the uplands and made her home in the thickets of a river-island. At that time the river was low, and, on one side of the island, the bed of the stream had become a dry, pebbly hollow, save for a large pool fed by the back-water at the lower end, where the minnows played, and whither the big trout wandered from the rapids to feed during the hot summer nights.
Late one afternoon, when long shadows lay across the mossy bank of the river beyond the tall beeches standing at the entrance to the island thickets, Puss was waiting for the dusk, and dozing meanwhile, but with wide-open eyes, beside her leveret. Since there was another little mouth besides her own requiring food, she generally felt hungry long before nightfall, and so, when the afterglow began to fade in the west, was wont to steal away to the clover above the woods that fringed the long, still pool up-stream.
As the day wore on, the hare heard the unmistakable tread of human feet approaching through the woods. The sounds became increasingly distinct; then a pebble rattled and splashed into the water as the intruder walked across the river-bed. He passed close to the "form," and, turning down-stream, was lost to sight amid the bushes. At intervals, the hare imagined that the faint, muffled sounds of footsteps came from the distance; but again the sounds drew near, ceasing, however, when the man was a few yards from the nest.
I can complete the story. Since spring I had been studying the wild life of this lonely island below the rocky gorge extending hither from the village bridge. The wood-wren, the willow-wren, and the garden-warbler had nested in the thickets, and every evening I had visited the place to pry on their doings, and to note how the flowers in glad succession blossomed and faded—their presence in this lonely sanctuary known only to myself, and to the birds, bees, and butterflies, and to the little shrews that rustled over the dry leaves beneath. But now the garden-warblers had left for the copse on the far side of the river, and the woodwrens and the willow-wrens had retreated to the inner recesses of the thickets, where, amid the luxuriant verdure of midsummer, their movements baffled my observation.
On the July evening, as I lay in the matted grass at the edge of the copse by the pebbles, watching a whitethroat among the bushes opposite, my eye happened to rest for an instant on a patch of bare mud immediately before me. There, to my surprise, I discovered the footprints of the hare. The five toes of the fore-feet, and the four toes of the hind-feet, were as clearly outlined as if each impression had been taken in plaster. And yet, when I stood up to look at the spot, the marks seemed to have wholly disappeared. On nearer examination I found that the track of the hare was in the direction of the island. From their shape, and the distance between each, the footprints indicated that the movements of the hare had not been hurried. Similar footprints were visible in a straight line between the bank and the island. Only one conclusion seemed possible —the hare had crossed to the island early that morning, after the heavy shower that had fallen just before dawn. It would have been contrary to her habits had she crossed later; and, had she passed the place at any time before, the rain would have washed away the marks in such an open spot, or, at any rate, would have blurred them beyond recognition.
After placing a white stone by the footprints to indicate their whereabouts, I searched along the river-bed for signs that would show a track towards the bank; but not a single mark could be found pointing in that direction. It was obvious that the hare had not left the island till, at any rate, some hours after the rain. Then, however, the sun would have been so high that Puss would have been loath to leave her lair. Faintly discernible beside a large pebble, one other footprint appeared, leading like the rest towards the island. The mark was old, and had been saved from obliteration by the sheltering stone; but it suggested that the hare had made her home not far away. Taught by experience, I decided not to penetrate the copse and risk disturbing its probable tenant. I approached it only so far as to examine another bare place in a line with the footprints on the mud, where, to my delight, I found fresh footprints similar to those at the dried-up ford, together with other and much smaller marks undoubtedly made by a tiny leveret.
I now recrossed the ford and went home. But before nightfall I returned, and, hiding behind the hedgerow on the bank, watched, unseen, the approach to the island. My patience was soon rewarded. Just as the dusk was deepening over the woodlands, " the slit-eared hare" left her " form" and stood in full view by the ford. There, having lazily stretched her long, supple limbs, she played awhile with her leveret, sometimes pausing to nibble a few clover-leaves as if to direct the little one's attention towards its suitable food. Then she ambled leisurely across the river-bed, and, with graceful, swinging gait, passed through the meadow beyond—while her offspring disappeared within the thickets of the island.
The hot weather broke up in July, and henceforth, till late September, rain descended almost every day. The shower that had revealed the whereabouts of the hare was the first sign of the change. On the following night, a thunderstorm broke over the countryside, washed down the soil from the pastures, and sent the river roaring in flood through the gorge. While on the far side of the island the main torrent raged past beneath the willows, the divided stream under the near bank formed salmon-pools and trout-reaches, where, before, the pebbles had been bare and dry.
Anxious to know how the flood would interfere with the movements of the hare, I came back on the following evening to my hiding place by the hedgerow. In the dusk, Puss appeared at the margin of the copse, and moved down the bank to the edge of the stream. There she paused, apparently perplexed, and called to her leveret. Presently the young hare joined her mother at the water's edge, and both hopped along the brink, seeking a dry place by which they might reach the field on the slope. Finding none, they adjourned to the mossy bank where I had seen the leveret's footprints. Then the doe went down boldly to the stream, called to her companion, waded in, and swam across. Ascending into the field, she shook the water from her fur, and again called repeatedly. The young s one hesitated, and ran to and fro crying piteously, "leek—leek." Suddenly, in the excitement, it missed its footfall and fell into the river. Bewildered, but hearing its mother's call, it swam down the pool through the still water below the little rapid, and landed on the opposite bank, where it joined its parent, and, following her example, shook the water from its downy limbs. Soon both disappeared within the wood; and, satisfied with my evening's sport, I turned homewards across the fields.
During the rest of the summer, the hare frequented the rough pastures skirting the ploughlands, and visited the cornfields only when the weather was dry. Hares suffer little discomfort in rainy weather, if only the fine fur beneath the surface of the coat remains dry—after a shower they can easily shake off any outside moisture. But they dislike entering damp places where the vegetation is tall and their fur may get matted and soaked by the raindrops collected on the herbage. In wet weather hares may often be found in cover, especially near thick furze-brakes on a well drained hillside, but their presence in such a situation may imply that they sought shelter before the rain began to fall.
In September, for the third time during the year, Puss was occupied with family affairs. Now, three tiny leverets were "kittled," and the nest occupied an almost bare place on the top of a ridge in the root-field where last season the succulent carrots grew. The hare had been greatly distressed by the unusually wet summer, and one of her leverets was in consequence a weakling; another leveret was killed by a prowling polecat while the mother wandered from the " form"; and only the third grew up robust and strong.
The approach of winter brought Puss many strange experiences, from some of which she barely emerged with her life. When the season was passed, it had become more than ever difficult to approach her; she would slip away to cover directly her keen senses detected the presence of a stranger in the field where she lay in her "form." As she grew older, her leverets sometimes numbered four or five, but as a rule she gave birth to three only, her productiveness being probably dependent on the ease with which she obtained food.
One day in February, just before bringing an early little family into the world, she almost met her death. A village poacher, ferreting on the hillside, chanced to see her, as she lay not far off in a patch of clover. Without waste of time, he proceeded to attempt the capture of the hare by a well-known trick. Thrusting a stake into the ground, he placed his hat on it, and strolled unconcernedly away. Then, as though he had changed his mind, he walked round the clump, in ever narrowing circles, gradually closing on his prey. Meanwhile, the hare, her attention wholly diverted by the improvised scarecrow, remained motionless, baffled by the artifice. Suddenly she felt the touch of the man's hand. The poacher had thrown himself down on the tuft, hoping to clutch the hare before she could move. But in endeavouring to look away from the spot, and, at the same time, measure the distance of his fall, he had miscalculated the hare's position. She sprang up, and with ears held low sped away towards the wood, leaving the poacher wild with rage at the failure of his ruse, and vowing vengeance on the timid creature, whose life, at such a time, would hardly, even to him, have been worth an effort.