Mary Epworth On Nature & The Mysterious, Mystical Hare

Mary Epworth's Twitter profile is three words long. It reads 'I like hares'. Here, the singer-songwriter and self-confessed "wildlife-obsessive" talks to John Freeman about the "otherworldly, but hugely misunderstood" mammal.

Hares are not what they seem

I have had occasion when I have walked up on hares and got really close and I’ve thought they were dead. As they lie there, they have these huge, glassy eyes and they are quite frightening. When you get up close to a hare, it is not a cute animal and I think that’s what is disconcerting. They are a bit like a rabbit, and you know what that is, but when you see a hare your brain says ‘is that a rabbit or a deer or a dog?’ and then you mentally flick between these things and that’s what makes them a bit otherworldly. Once I was looking through binoculars and I really thought I was seeing a staring corpse until I got really close and then it just took off down the field. There is definitely a bit of an edge to them.

Hares are disregarded and misunderstood by the general public

Hares are very overlooked by people. There are lot of people who probably wouldn’t even know what a hare was, and many are only really aware of them if they are chasing them or eating them. There is a gap in knowledge somewhere, as if people assume rabbit and hares are the same animal. Also, unlike foxes, for example, they are not generally seen as vermin, I don’t think, even in the countryside. It just seems as if it’s fun to chase them and kill them. However, they are not seen as a ‘baddy’ animal, although there is a long history of them being quite spooky and arcane and associated with witches.

Hares are connected to pagan mysticism

If you ever go in a hippy shop or a pagan website there will be a million hare calendars and moons. There is a history of hares being linked to the moon – the Moon Gazing Hare is known throughout the world. In Mexico they say there is a ‘hare in the moon’ rather than a ‘man in the moon’. They used to be seen as witches familiars – people would think hares were cats and call them ‘puss’.

The Easter Bunny was probably a hare

There are a number of connections. Eostra was the goddess of fertility and allegedly had a pet hare. The Easter bunny was supposedly actually a hare and in a lot of cultures there is stuff about the hare being a symbol of fertility. I love folklore, so I love that aspect of the mythology of hares. They are definitely a bit of a magical creature but that is because, for some reason, they are kind of spooky and that’s why these myths have appeared about them.

You need to get out of London if you want to see a hare

I live in Bishop’s Stortford, which is halfway between London and Cambridge, and if I get the train to London I’m always looking out of the window for wildlife and I have never once seen a hare between my home and London. But, as soon as you start going out towards Cambridge there are loads and the further you go towards Norfolk there will be a dozen per field. Last year, visiting my uncle, I saw 35 in a single field. It was ridiculous – there were ears everywhere.

Hare-coursing is a particularly vile blood sport

I’m sure hare-coursing goes on and that’s why there are so few hares between London and Bishop’s Stortford. It’s horrible, but it’s a blood sport and that’s what they are all about. The only reason for it is that these people think it is fun. Back in the day, they hadn’t invented computer games, so they’d chase something until it died and then eat it. I could kind of understand that at one point in history, your dogs would chase a hare and then you would eat it – I get that – but we are not at that point now, are we? But, I’m a classic hypocrite, because I eat meat. However, saying that, I think the current call for a badger cull is ridiculous having read some of the data about how it will end up just dispersing the badger population and the disease will spread further. Why can’t they inoculate the cows? It’s just political games.

My dream skill would to be able to call to hares

I once saw a thing on TV, which was filmed in the 30s and I’ve never been able to find again, about a farmer sat in a field on a chair and he could call hares. He did this whistle and a hare came out of a field and came up to him. It was amazing. That would be my life complete if I could have that skill.

My childhood love of hares survived seeing Hartley Hare on the TV programme Pipkins

I can just about remember Hartley hare. He was so disturbing; it was like he was putrefying or something. He looked like he was rotting. However, he does look like a hare though – they’d done quite well at that. But, I love any depiction of hares in literature because if you know the creature then you can make the connection. I always loved the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland, the hare in the Narnia stories and the Aesop fable, ‘The Hare And The Tortoise’.

Nature is weird. Hares eat their own faeces, all in the name of caecotrophy

Near where I walk, I know there are a couple of fields where hares live. One day I went to look for them and I turned a corner and there was a hare with its leg in the air. It was so busy eating its own shit that he didn’t notice me. But, if you are into nature, an animal eating its own shit is not that surprising. Nature is weird. I used to have guinea pigs and they’d love to eat bird turds. They’d fight over them. Once, my mum saw a blackbird and a hedgehog fighting over a dog turd. This might be the first time my mum gets mentioned in one of my articles – she’ll be proud of that.

Music festivals can be good places to spot wildlife

I did see a hare at End Of The Road this year. It was a brown hare; I’ve never seen a mountain hare. We played Bestival and they had red squirrels (which I loved as a child) and I managed to see one on the festival site. I also knew that the woods we were in had dormice and I’ve never seen one and would love to. I walked walk around the trees but with no luck.

My love of wildlife has influenced my music

The song ‘Black Doe’ is actually about a fallow deer, but I shot myself in the foot as the lyrics mention "black doe, black roe," so I will probably have points deducted by the deer nerds. The song is about being in the woods and coming up really close to a doe and her fawn. I love deer – if you look closely into a deer’s eyes you are not looking at a dumb animal, you can tell that you are eye-to-eye with a sentient creature.

You have to learn how to look for animals in the wild

There is a wood near me that is the best-preserved medieval hunting forest in England. It’s called Hatfield Forest and it is right next to Stansted airport and it’s beautiful. I love it there – it’s the nearest I get to being in a church in my life. I have taken my friends there who are ‘London people’ and they weren’t used to being out in the woods like that and they didn’t see anything – no wildlife at all – simply because they weren’t tuned in. You have to be very still and very patient and just wait and see what’s there. They just missed everything. I hadn’t really realised that that was a learned skill. For me, if I am in woodland, there is still the slight ancestral memory in which my awareness goes up. It’s as if I am relaxed but there is a little bit of me that switches on to being intensely aware of my surrounds and what’s behind me. It’s a magical feeling.

When viewing wildlife, there are clues everywhere

I’ve always liked watching things. You have to have your peripheral vision on. And, it’s also about the things you realised you have learned. I really like owls and quite often if I am out walking I will hear a wren, or something, doing an alarm call and I’ll know there is an owl about. You realise that other birds are communicating that there is a predator about, so you know to look for the predator. There are little clues like that.

Looking for hares can make train journeys fun

The next time you are on a train, look out of the window and search a field and if you see a lump and if it has ears with a black tip, you will definitely be seeing a hare. They are quite sandy in colour. I get laughed at because I can spot a hare in a field and everyone else just thinks it is a blob. But, I’ve got really good at knowing the shape.

One of my life ambitions is to touch a hare

I’ve never touched one, I’d love too. At End of The Road there was one ten feet away, which is probably the closet I’ve been. It was just bumbling around backstage. My friend said it was a tame performing hare and I actually believed him for a while. If anyone has any hares that they just need someone to cuddle, them I’m always available. I will stroke hares at no charge.

Dream Life by Mary Epworth is out now via Hand Of Glory. For more information about hares visit the Hare Preservation Trust

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