Brown hares are common on mainland Orkney: an introduced species long naturalised, they are very much at home here. This wide-open landscape, with its voluptuous green curves, makes good hare country. I’ve seen them often in the low light of winter mornings, loping through the dew-spangled grass, or casting long shadows in the late afternoon as the sun is winding down. It’s breeding season at the moment, which means they’re more visible than usual. They gather in small parties, box, and chase their ladyfolk around.
A few days ago, snatching at a break in the weather, I was out on horseback and riding down one of the muddy grass tracks that lie squeezed between drystone dykes. Kicking on into a canter, we had taken only a few strides when both horse and rider were startled by a flash of movement as what I’d taken for a molehill burst into life and galloped away. A strange, unsettling sensation: the earth seemed to shift and move underfoot. But it was only a hare, taking flight.
We meant him no harm, of course, but there was no telling him that. He thundered down the track ahead of us – long ears erect and those powerful hind legs cycling, faster than a speeding car. Overkill, really, given the heaviness of my cob’s gait, our lumbering progress behind.
I pulled up to allow him to escape, but he stopped too and stared us down with his big brown eyes, watchful and tense, whiskers twitching, ready for action. A stand-off. I called to him: “Daft animal! Get off the track!” But he had his own tactics.
Like this we kept up an intermittent chase for a half mile: hare streaming away ahead of us, sure-footed and fast; we slipping and leaping behind, sliding in the mud and throwing in the occasional buck. Both animals – hare and horse – seemed relieved to be out in the watery sunlight after so many days of gales and thunder and hail.
Finally, our grassy way rejoined a narrow single-track road, and the hare dashed uphill and away. We turned towards home. Spring in the air and a spring in our step.