‘Mad as a March hare’ is an old saying dating back to at least the 1500s. The European or brown hare is famous for exhibiting excitable breeding behaviour, such as boxing and leaping. These remarkable creatures are thought to have been introduced here by the Romans. Larger than rabbits, they have longer legs and ears and are a beautiful golden brown with paler bellies and white tails. They like a mix of fields and woodlands and though I’ve spotted them in the Malverns, on Dartmoor and in the RHS garden of Hyde Hall in Essex, I have never seen one here in East Devon. We used to have many rabbits (introduced to the UK in the 12th century for meat and fur) but there were only one or two in the garden last summer and none spotted during winter.
A new study indicates their UK numbers have dropped by 48% in the last 20 years, possibly due to rabbit haemorrhagic disease, the biggest threat to their population since the outbreak of myxomatosis in the 1950s. I like to see a few bunnies in our rural garden but only because we have a rabbit fenced kitchen garden and outside of this, grow many hairy, aromatic or poisonous plants they don’t eat. Whilst gardening, one used to hear cuckoo’s calling to announce spring. These summer visitors arrive in the country from April, at the same time as cuckoo flowers or lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) open pale pink blooms in damp meadows. Numbers of these birds have fallen by 56% since 1970 but we generally have around 15 thousand breeding pairs tucking into their favourite food of hairy caterpillars and laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. You are most likely to hear them in Wales and Scotland because these birds take a different and more nourishing migratory route to their winter home in the Congo.
We should never make the mistake of thinking that how we garden today is somehow new and innovative as most of it has been done before. John Evelyn (1620-1706), though best known for his diary, was a great horticulturist. As a young man from a family with Royalist tendencies, he travelled extensively in Europe mainly to keep away from the Civil War during a time when the royal court was in exile. In 1652, having explored the great gardens of France, Italy and The Netherlands, he settled at his wife’s home Sayes Court, on the banks of the Thames in what was then the village of Deptford. His book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, was commissioned to help provide a continuity of timber for the Navy and he was subsequently made Councillor for Foreign Plantations. Sadly, he never completed Elysium Britannicum, a planned great work but parts are still available. ‘Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets’ proves that mixtures of tasty and unusual leaves are by no means a modern trend. ‘Directions for the Gardiner’ is a practical work based on the garden at Sayes Court at a time when earthworms were thought to be pests and plants like pelargoniums, tagetes and Amaryllis belladonna new to the country. ‘Kalendarium Hortense: or the Gard’ners Almanac’ is one of the earliest gardening calendars published. I enjoy archaic words such as ‘Olitory’, an old name for the kitchen garden and ‘stercoration’, meaning manuring with dung. The first gardening job for March is inspired by Evelyn’s Kalendarium.