In search of the elusive three hares


Wildlife writer Jane Adams goes in search of mysterious hares in Dorset churches which may have originated in Buddhist China

As I stared up at the ceiling inside St. Hubert’s church, Corfe Mullen, three hares stared back at me. Each hare shared ears with its neighbour and though the optical puzzle was fascinating itself, what did it mean? Placed alongside the Christian iconography, it felt weirdly out of place.
‘Aren’t they just big bunnies?’ a friend asked when I told her about the hares. While it’s true that they share some physical similarities, these elusive mammals are very different from rabbits. With long, black-tipped ears, a golden brown coat and those powerful hind legs, they’re nearly double the size, and about as similar to a rabbit as a Chihuahua is to a Cocker spaniel.

Image Graham P Bannister Wildlife Photography

Hares are solitary creatures, particularly outside breeding season, feeding on fresh plant shoots at night and hiding in a dip in the ground (a form) during the day. However, if discovered, they can run at up to 45mph, quick enough to outrun any native predator.
Historically, we’ve had a confusing relationship with hares. Pagan and Christian beliefs linked them not only to madness, famine and witchcraft but also fertility, good luck and longevity. A pagan springtime ritual celebration of hares may even have morphed into the Easter Bunny tradition.
But nowadays they aren’t as common as they once were. Most modern farms don’t include the mosaic of crops, hedgerows, woodland and grazing that hares need to thrive. Along with an increase in pesticides, modern farm machinery and a lack of legal protections, their numbers have decreased by 80 per cent over the last 100 years.

Image Graham P Bannister Wildlife Photography

Hares breed from February through to September, producing three to four litters each year. The three hares motif may be linked to their fertility.
In the Middle Ages, it was thought that hares could reproduce without a mate – effectively virgin births. So the three hares could symbolise the Virgin Mary – or the Holy Trinity.
This mysterious icon isn’t restricted to one Dorset church. There are 17 churches in Devon with examples of a three-hare boss, with others found in Somerset and Cornwall.
However, the earliest example of the motif is found in a Buddhist cave painting in China, dating from 581 to 618 CE. It is likely that it found its way to southern Britain via the Silk Road – a busy trading route in medieval times.

So although autumn and winter are an excellent time to spot hares in the wild, this month try looking inside as well. Check the ceiling of your nearest medieval church and, if you find the mysterious three hares, I’d love to hear from you!
To learn more about brown hares, see the Hare Preservation Trust. Find out more about the Three Hares Project here.
Contact Jane Adams via her website

The three hares boss in St Hubert’s Church, Corfe Mullen

Sadly, hare coursing continues to be an issue, especially in north east Dorset – see the report from The BV, Aug 21. Hares cannot match the stamina of hunting hounds who will continue the chase until the hare is exhausted. Even if the hare escapes it is widely understood that its welfare is seriously compromised due to the trauma


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