Storyteller: Magical March hares on Dartmoor

Torbay Weekly

Spring has sprung at the start of another Dartmoor walking year, and one of the obvious signs, apart from the flowers blooming, is the activity among the wildlife.

This is most noticeable among the rabbit and hare populations.

Rabbits are quite abundant, hares not so much, but they certainly feature in Dartmoor tales and symbols from days gone by.

Their mating rituals include the males fighting each other over a mate, giving rise to the phrase as Mad as a March Hare, but the tales suggest there is something more magical about them.

The Dartmoor tinners took them as their industry’s symbol, featuring three rabbits or hares in a triangle each sharing an ear, as can be seen on the pub sign at the Warren House Inn.

Rabbits formed part of the staple diet of the miners, who lived and worked on the moors, even creating artificial burrows or warrens for them to live in, before becoming a tasty meal for a hard worker.

This symbol is also known as the Hunt of Venus, sometimes featured on the wooden boss ornaments in the ceilings of many Dartmoor churches and elsewhere, suggesting its origins are quite ancient.

As for Dartmoor mythology, hares feature in several tales, including another encounter with the Devil.

This story concerns a widowed farmer’s wife, who finds herself struggling to make ends meet.

Her hens were not giving her many eggs to sell at market. One day she was riding her horse along a lane, on her way to sell her wares, when suddenly a large hare came running out of a field, and stopped in front of her horse, causing it to pull up short for fear of squashing the poor creature under its hooves.

Standing up on its hind legs, the farmer’s wife got the impression the hare was begging for her help.

At that moment, she heard the baying sound of an approaching pack of hounds, and, without thinking, she grabbed the scared animal, and concealed it in her large panniers, beside her eggs.

Before she could proceed, she found her path blocked by a hooded rider, accompanied by his pack of excited hounds, obviously on the trail of their prey.

Without introducing himself, the stranger enquired if the woman had seen a large hare running this way?

Realising who her inquisitor was, and without fear of lying to the Devil’s face, she told him she thought she had just seen one running through the field on the other side of the hedge.

Thanking her for her assistance, the hunting party galloped off in pursuit of their prey.

Once she felt it was safe to do so, the farmer’s wife took the hare from her panniers, placing it on the ground, expecting it to run off.

Instead, it looked at her and proceeded to run round and round in circles in front of her.

Suddenly the hare vanished, and in its place stood the figure of a beautiful young girl.

She thanked the shocked farmer’s wife profusely for her courageous behaviour, explaining that she was now in spirit, but, as the life she had led wasn’t especially pure, in death she had been condemned to spending eternity in the form of a hare, forever running from the Devil and his pack, unless she could somehow contrive to get behind them... this she had now managed to achieve with the woman’s help.

Before returning to the spirit world, the girl said, as a reward for her bravery, she would never want for anything ever again, and, sure enough, the hens started to produce vast quantities of eggs each week for market, allowing her to live comfortably for the rest of her days.

Just recently, I found another version of this story, where the hare in question was a man who had committed suicide.

Not being allowed burial in consecrated ground, back in those days, he had been buried at a crossroads just outside Bovey Tracey.

His rescuer, in this instance, had been a poor farmer.

Another tale features an old granny and her grandson.

The granny was actually a witch, able to turn herself into a hare.

She chose to use this talent to make them some money, and enrolled her grandson to help.

Whenever she got word that the local hunt was out in their area, she would send him to inform the lead huntsman that he had seen a hare, and, in return for a few coins, he would show them where.

Coins handed over, the lad would lead them to a nearby field, where, sure enough, his granny appeared in the guise of a hare, and allowed the huntsmen and their hounds to chase her, always staying well out of their grasp.

This happened on many occasions, the grandson getting paid for his information, the granny, as the hare, leading the hunt a merry dance.

They were starting to get quite rich from it. Until, one day, the leader of the hunt, who was getting a bit fed up of chasing a hare and never catching it, on this occasion, before releasing the hounds, he took his gun and shot at it, hitting it in the leg.

Badly injured, the hare wasn’t able to run so fast, and the hounds were able to follow the trail of blood from the wound.

It led them to an old shack in the woods, where granny and her grandson lived, and, upon entering, the huntsmen found the old witch tending to a fresh injury to her leg...

Versions differ as to how the story ends.

Some say granny was made to pay the money back, having been let off with a warning, while others claim that she was dragged from the shack, tied to a stack and burnt to death as a witch, without a fair trial, as the evidence against her was plain for all to see... her grandson being made to watch!

These examples of Dartmoor mythology show you just how many versions of any given story there are, and that there is no right or wrong way to tell a Dartmoor tale!