On one of my dog walks (before the country went into lockdown), myself and my posse of pooches were startled when a huge hare sprang out of the long grass in front of us and bounded off across the field at a rate of knots. I’m always impressed by the size and speed of a hare, and this one was about as big as a border terrier.
The hare is said to be ‘mad’ at this time of year, as it exhibits some rather bizarre behaviour, such as ‘boxing’ enemies, leaping vertically into the air, and generally behaving rather excitedly. March is its breeding season, and the experts say that is the reason for the strange antics. The ‘boxing’ is actually a female warding off unwanted attention from amorous males.
There are plenty of folk tales featuring hares and, according to my dad’s column from 29th March 1980, the North York Moors are particularly renowned for ‘sightings’ of what is known as the ‘witch-hare’. Stories about the witch-hare are born out of the ancient belief that witches could turn themselves into various animals at will, such as frogs, cats, wolves and lizards, although the hare is possibly the most common.
We are not sure where the belief originated, but an account dating from 1187 by Gerald of Wales says that: ‘It has also been a frequent complaint from old times as well as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as Ireland and Scotland, changed themselves into the shape of hares, that sucking teats under this counterfeit form, they might stealthily rob other people’s milk.’
So it is likely the belief had been around since at least the first century A.D. and possibly earlier than that. Amazingly, ‘sightings’ persisted right up until just before the Second World War, with stories being passed down by word of mouth, their details changed and embellished with every retelling. Eventually, someone would write it down, and that would become the definitive version.
The stories were usually very similar, whereby a hare would be caught in the act of some misdemeanour, such as eating carrot tops, and would flee, chased down by a farmer and his dogs. It would head towards the home of a well known local ‘witch’ where it would disappear through a hole, but not before being wounded by a shot or the bite of a dog at the last minute.
The pursuers would then enter the building to find that the hare had vanished, but the old female resident would be lying down, exhausted and panting, with an injury to her body corresponding to the wound inflicted on the fleeing hare.
Dad’s Countryman’s Diary predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, was told a story involving a gentleman called Bobby Dowson, a well-known member of the Bilsdale Hunt who died in 1902 at the age of 86. He recounted the following to the Major, who then passed it on to my dad in a letter.
In 1860, when Bobby was 44, he and some friends were hunting hares when one bolted towards the home of old Peg Humphrey who lived near Helmsley. The hare disappeared through a hole in her barn door, but when they opened it, they found Peg lying on the straw breathing heavily. She told them she’d been feeding the cattle when the door blew shut, locking her in.
Bobby claimed to have chased another hare towards Peg’s home, and this time his hounds managed to nip some flesh from its leg before it disappeared into the house. The hare vanished, but they found Peg lying on her bed, exhausted, with an injury to the same leg as the hare.
There are numerous such accounts from the moors, including one from Dad’s home village of Glaisdale where a hare had been biting the tops off new saplings. According to the legend, witch-hares could only be killed using silver bullets, so the angry farmer took the buttons off his coat and fashioned them into shot. He lay in wait, and managed to hit the hare, but it still escaped, running towards ‘Aud Maggie’s house’. The hare was never found but the next day, Aud Maggie was found in bed with severe injuries, claiming to have fallen on broken glass.
These are just a very few of the many, many ‘first-hand’ accounts of witch-hare sightings. With so many eye-witness tales, is it possible some could even be true?
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th and the Gazette & Herald on 25th March 2020