Country Life: Harey tales

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The Independent Online

When I take our golden retriever, Milo, for a walk across the farmland next to our house, we almost always have an encounter with a hare.

When I take our golden retriever, Milo, for a walk across the farmland next to our house, we almost always have an encounter with a hare. The same thing happens practically every time; when we reach a particular spot in a particular field, the hare leaps up in front of us and runs hell for leather for the sanctity of the hedgerow, with Milo in hot, but always vain, pursuit. Milo, the big, daft lump, is taken by surprise every time. But I have a hunch that the hare is expecting us, almost lying in wait, looking forward to the thrill of a chase it knows it will never lose.

I mention this because I was recently sent a splendid book called The Hare. According to the publisher, Merlin Unwin Books of Ludlow, it is the first book about the hare to be written for 23 years. Which, in all honesty, didn't surprise me. The surprise was more that another book about the hare had been written as recently as 23 years ago. So why this one? It's hard to picture publishing types saying, "It's high time there was another biography of the hare", as they might about Franco or Tolkein or Isambard Kingdom Brunel. What is there to say about the hare?

A hell of a lot, is the answer. Jill Mason, who was a gamekeeper for 30 years, has tackled the subject from every imaginable angle and produced an unexpectedly fascinating book.

My favourite bit is the section on superstitions concerning the hare. When planning which route her army should take, Queen Boudicca is said to have produced one from under her gown (which must have given her generals something to talk about) and released it, insisting that the hare would choose the direction.

Traditionally, though, the poor old hare has been associated with bad luck. In what anyone other than my children might call the olden days (for them, somewhat distressingly, the "olden days" refers to the years before the introduction of colour television), a belief prevailed that if a pregnant woman saw a hare, then her child would be born with a harelip.

In northern England, if you dreamt about a hare, then it meant someone in your family was about to die. And in Cornwall it was believed that a girl who had died of grief after being betrayed by her lover would turn into a white hare and return to haunt him. I don't suppose there were ever that many Cornishwomen who expired with grief after being let down by errant lovers, but maybe the very thought of being haunted by a white hare was enough to keep their chaps faithful. Whatever, next time I am out with Milo, I will look at our long-eared friend with new respect.

* If any creature has to be demonised, then for my money it should be the jackdaw rather than the hare. Every spring they arrive to nest in one of our chimneys, annoyingly choosing the tallest, which is so high that only Fred Dibnah could get a net over it, and he, alas, is no longer with us.

So we are fighting a battle of wills with the jackdaws; every morning we find twigs in the grate, so every morning we light a fire which drives them away from the chimney pot and into the nearby lime tree, where they perch looking very cross indeed. The following dawn, they crack on with the job, until we light the fire again.

Whether we will get fed up with lighting fires before they decide to nest somewhere else is, literally, the £100 question. That is what it will cost us to get the chimney sweep round when the nesting season is over, and he has to charge a lot because it's a Matterhorn among chimneys.

Still, it's always a pleasure to ring him because his name is Ken Dodd, which, aptly, never fails to tickle me. The last time he came we had an American friend staying with us, who had never heard of Ken Dodd and so didn't understand what was so funny. Moreover, he expressed great disappointment on meeting Ken, having harboured the hope that an English chimney sweep would turn out to be nine years old, wearing a battered top hat.

My guess is that we will eventually give in to the jackdaws, whose persistence, while irritating, is admirable. The other option is to ask our neighbour David, who used to be the clay pigeon shooting champion of all England, to get his shotgun out. But we have heard that jackdaws mate for life, and the thought of a grieving feathered widower is stopping us from sanctioning the assassination.

* One sometimes forgets that there is a different moral code in the sticks. The other day I met a woman called Jo who three years ago moved with her boyfriend from London to Dorset. Last year they decided to get married, and so booked a number of local B&Bs for friends travelling down from the city. A woman who owned one of the B&Bs asked whether they were having a celebration. "Yes, Peter and I are getting married," said Jo. "Oh, that's lovely," said the woman. "Everyone in the village has been hoping you would."

'Tales of the Country', Brian Viner's book inspired by this column, is published on Monday (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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