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February 17th. I visited Ingatestone Hall Farm this morning as I had been told that there are lots of Brown Hares there at the present time. This surprised me, as during the many years I have been walking the parish footpaths I doubt whether I have ever seen more than a couple on a single day. My informant was right, though, as I counted no less than eighteen this morning - dark lumps against the green autumn wheat, with only an occasional twitching ear to give them away. Even allowing for the fact that daydreaming has long been a very bad habit of mine, to encounter eighteen hares in one morning when I had only seen half a dozen during the previous six months bears eloquent testimony to my powers of observation! Mind you, Lord Petre’s gamekeeper at Writtle Park told me recently that if he shot thirty hares on the estate during the course of a winter it would have little effect on their abundance but that if he killed fifty then it probably would, as he estimated the population to be around one hundred and twenty animals, although he was rarely aware of this abundance during daytime walks. Likewise, Nick Robson, who is the EWT’s warden at Bluehouse Farm, North Fambridge, reckons that when they do surveys at night using lamps they often see forty or more hares, whereas you are lucky to see a tenth of that number during a daytime walk. Thus, it is obvious that they are far more nocturnal in their habits than I had imagined.
The late Reg Smith, who farmed with his brother at Jordan’s Farm, Mountnessing, once told me that he thought hares were much more numerous in the past when root crops were grown at Ingatestone Hall and neighbouring farms. They loved to nibble the sugar beet and were considered to be a serious pest. He recalled a cull taking place during the war, during which the workers on the farm surrounded each of the fields in turn and walked slowly towards the centre, the fleeing animals either being shot, clubbed or set upon by dogs. Very few managed to escape and by the end of the day they had killed over two hundred and fifty. They tell me that jugged hare is an acquired taste but whatever their flavour it is unlikely that such a valuable source of protein would have gone to waste in those wartime days.
This story reminded me of a conversation I once had with a visitor to the Bird Observatory at Bradwell. He came from the Saffron Walden area and during a chat about country matters he mentioned that just prior to the last war he had taken part in a day’s shooting during which no less than a thousand Hares were killed. He went on to say that the stench in the barn where the bodies were hung was overpowering! Later in the conversation the subject turned to foxes. Apparently a Vixen had recently broken into his henhouse and killed half a dozen chickens but had taken only one of them. I tried suggesting that if it had been left undisturbed the Fox would probably have returned for the other five and cached them somewhere nearby as a fall-back for a hungry day, but it did no good. He became very animated about it, heaping all manner of abuse on the animal’s head, and concluded by saying that the fox was a bloodthirsty predator which killed things for the sheer pleasure of it. Not like us then…………