Hares or rabbits?

The first question people ask me about my PhD topic is always this:

‘You mean like rabbits?’

Hare

This is not a rabbit. Photo by Jo Garbutt, CC BY 2.0

I get it; there are similarities. They belong to the same family, leporidae, but (as a crude analogy) humans and gorillas also have the same relationship. Humans are the rabbits here – we’re also born helpless, hairless and pretty much blind, whereas gorillas are one of the most precocial species of ape. Precocial infants are born with some degree of independence from birth, which is where we come back to hares. Because hares don’t burrow they have no underground refuge from predators. They rest and breed in shallow depressions above ground, relying on stillness to protect them from being spotted and speed to outrun any animal that does find them.

Hares have also been around in Britain for at least a millennium longer than rabbits; they were highly regarded in the Roman period and kept in parks on the continent, and there is some evidence to suggest there may have been similar places here (Sykes 2014, p. 89). These enclosures are something that is replicated to a degree in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these monuments are a major feature of my research. Whereas rabbits during this period were effectively farmed for their meat and fur, hares seem to have been encouraged into areas to provide sport. They were wild and not fully enclosed, though they were cared for to an extent – and now the places in which their populations are often strongest are where they are actively hunted. I have now identified at least 16 extant hare warrens across (mainly) the south of England, all reasonably distinct but sharing several common characteristics. These include being wooded, and surrounded by a wall or bank, ditch and wooden pale, complete with holes or ‘soughs’ for the hares to pass through to get in and out.

All that aside though, look at that beast above! Hares almost always have faces plastered with a look of deep suspicion, like a cat approaching a wind-up mouse. There’s a reason hares are associated with folklore and witch myths – they are a curiously arcane animal. And of course we cannot forget the greatest treasure hunt of all time: Masquerade! This little piece of interactive literary gold was packed with hidden hares, references to all sorts of strange adventures and promised the solver of the riddle a golden hare set with valuable jewels. A rabbit simply wouldn’t have cut the mustard.

As for the second question people ask about my PhD.. that one is normally, ‘Why?’. One for another blog post, I think.

Sykes, N. (2014) Beastly Questions: Animal Answers to Archaeological Issues, London: Bloomsbury.