Wildlife artist Robert Fuller in pursuit of the rare white hare
It’s strange to think that people could have been so confused, but hares have always had a hold on our imagination and legends about them abound.
So imagine my excitement when, last spring, I heard rumours of a white hare living in a remote valley on the Yorkshire Wolds. White hares are so rare that sightings of them are steeped in mystery.
Intrigued, I set off to see if I could find the magical creature.
When I arrived at the place it had last been seen there was only an hour of daylight left. But as I glanced to my right I instantly spotted a white speck out in the wheat field.
I grabbed my binoculars and focused in. And there it was, a white hare; its coat glaring bright against the green of the field behind it. Never had wildlife-watching been so easy for me.
But the way in which this hare stood out starkly made me feel uneasy; I was conscious it was an easy target. Not wanting to endanger this amazing creature, I decided to hold off telling its story until now.
Back in my car, I pulled up on to the verge to watch. The hare’s long ears slowly flattened against its back and it lowered its body down into the green wheat crop. All I could see now was brief flashes of white as the wind blew the wheat shoots back and forth.
I noticed, even from this distance, that its eye was dark brown and not the typical orange of a normal hare’s eye. More importantly, it was not pink which would have indicated that this hare was an albino.
This meant it had to be leucistic. A leucistic animal lacks melanocytes, the melanin-producing cells that yield colour. These melanocytes fail to radiate from the neural crest – a structure which develops along the future-spinal column to the skin – when the animal is still in embryonic stage.
Melanocyte cells are different to those responsible for eye coloration and this accounts for why leucistic animals usually have normally pigmented eyes.
As the light faded, a brown hare loped over to his white counterpart. Females do not approach males, especially at this time of year, so I suspected the brown hare was a male. The white hare looked up brusquely, his gruff response confirming that he was a male too.
Intrigued to find out more about this unusual animal, I returned to the same spot the following evening and found it a short distance away from where I had seen it last.
This time, I lined my car up with a tram line in the field. I reckoned the hare would use this tram line as a pathway through the wheat and of course I would get a clearer view of it from this vantage point.
Sure enough, after watching it groom and feed on the crop shoots for half an hour, it hopped out into the tram line, just as I had hoped.
It was the first time I had seen it properly, since previously it had been largely hidden by the wheat crop, and I was enchanted. It really was stunning.
It began loping along towards me then paused, sniffing the ground, turned and stretched. As it arched its back another male hare came into the frame and stopped a foot away.
As they faced each other, the white hare stopped grazing and sat up tall, making himself look as big as possible. He twitched his ears back and forth nervously before rearing up on his hind legs, preparing to box.
He then hopped towards the brown hare on two legs, ready to lash out. But the brown hare’s response was surprising. He spun, jumping around the hare and spraying it with urine before bounding away further up the tram line, putting some distance between them.
The white hare shook himself off, clearly agitated. He crouched down trying to clean his face with his front paws. Then, clearly deciding to give chase, he followed the brown hare up the tram line and reared up to challenge him. I watched as both hares faced one another and began swinging punches.
Normally boxing is reserved for courtship bouts between males and females, but males will have swift punch-ups between themselves as they fight for supremacy.
This short boxing bout seemed to resolve the understanding of this power dynamic. The brown hare soon backed off and now that it was clear that the white hare was in charge the two males fed alongside each other peacefully.
On the third night, I noticed the white hare’s ears flatten. He, and the other hares around him, quickly lowered themselves slowly into the crop. I looked up to see a buzzard hovering above the ridge just behind the hares. Suddenly it plummeted to the ground.
I trained my binoculars on to it just in time to see it take off from the ground, a leveret grasped in its talons. The snatching of this baby hare reinforced what I already knew – that buzzards are not a threat to full grown hares – even white ones.
How this creature had managed to get through its early life, though, intrigued me. Perhaps, with the Wolds being so chalky, the white stones that are common on the soil could have been an adaptive advantage.
This white hare was probably around three years old already and one of the most dominant hares in the valley. Over the course of the following week, I noticed that five male hares and my white hare would converge on this field each evening.
The hares all seemed to know one another and there was a clear pecking order to their social structure. This order was constantly being challenged – which is normal during the breeding season.
One time I watched the white hare charging across the field towards another brown hare. As the white hare drew closer, he realised he had mistaken a male for a female and quickly steered a wide berth.
A third hare, thinking that he was missing out, came rushing in just as the second scarpered in surprise. The third hare paused momentarily, standing tall and scenting the air, before chasing the white hare off.
He continued on his way, nose to the ground, scenting the earth for the smell of a female. Then he glanced up at the white hare and circled back on himself, heading straight for the white hare again.
The white hare stood his ground this time, rearing up on his hind legs, and the brown hare quickly retreated and headed off to another part of the field.
On one of the last evenings of watching, the white hare came loping down the tram line towards me followed shortly afterwards by a brown hare.
Both paused to graze on the green wheat shoots growing either side of the tram line. As they got closer I noticed they were also eating soil. This is something I had not seen before and I can only assume it was to help with their digestion.
As the weather got warmer and the crop grew taller I saw less and less of the white hare. But the last time I saw him he was in part of a gang of male hares at the top of the field all vying for the female’s attention.
It had been quite remarkable watching him and I was so pleased to have seen this small part of his life. And whilst he wasn’t mythical, seeing him at Easter time certainly felt like a magical experience.
Robert’s art gallery is currently closed but you can follow his work on-line at www.robertefuller.com
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