Mr A of Bristol asks for further information regarding the Hare Park at Wilton.

Well, Sir, I believe hare parks have been around for a long time. Was it not Nicholas Cox who commented at the end of the 17th century that ‘the largest Hare-Parks that ever I heard of, and the best furnished with those fearful, yet subtile Creatures, are in Ireland; the one belongs to the Lord-Lieutenant of that Kingdom, near Dublin; and the other in the North, and belongs to the Lord of Mazareen.’

The hare also enjoyed an unusual status amongst hunted animals – it was loved and admired, even by its hunters, just as it is today. Henry Fielding constantly mentioned hare hunting in his novels, and barely referred to any other sport, but here is the Rev. Swete and his first experience of coursing, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire in July 1788: ‘By leave of the Steward a Party was formed for coursing – Mr Walter met a neighbouring gentleman in the field – each bringing with him three brace and half of greyhounds. These being match’d according to their size, age, or power, we proceeded to the sport, being of Horse about a dozen, and as many foot – a Hare being quickly found, proper law was given it, and a brace of dogs let loose. All in an instant was animation and pursuit – when either of the greyhounds turned the hare what shouts, what exultations! when it was killed what triumph. The Dogs themselves seem’d to feel the exultation, and to participate in the glory of conquest or the humiliation of defeat. One circumstance in particular struck me as extraordinary: Whenever a Hare had the good fortune to gain the thick cover of a hedge (which in general consisted of double Hawthorns rising from the sod) it was observed to desist from its flight and to squat close to the ground. – for the Dogs having been accustom’d to be call’d off on such occasions, at length stopt of their own accord.

We ran about 40 hares, and took seven: – the Number we killed was proportionately small to what we coursed – but as keen sportsmen deem’d it no merit in the dog to catch – the suffrage of the company was that we had had excellent sport. Such a day as this I had never before seen – in respect to field diversions it was the pleasantest I had ever past.’

Burton Pynsent hosted a more typical and more brutal outing on the 8th December 1770: ‘I have saranaded the Hares around … to or three times, but not kild one … but so afrighted them that I believe if the Doors of the House [had] been open, they would have ran in for shelter…

The first morning we got to Somerton Hedge corner, the first inclosiers going down to the Town, and the first Inclosier found an old Corsed hare, who would not venter her self into the open Field but ran up and down the Inclosiers til she was puled out of a thick hedge in less than half an hour. The Hounds puled off one of her fore legs, Is [eyes] open in revenge for not using it as she ought. In less than half an Hour, found an other in the same Inclosier not far from [the first] … She with great resolution ran near the same ground, went home again and then dyed.’

To revert to Mr A’s question, despite the casual arrangements there are grounds for supposing that hare-hunting had a considerable influence on parkland design – particularly of course where there were discreet parks for hares. Indeed they were regularly imported to Windsor Great Park (which itself implies that they were hunted so hard in the park that their numbers needed making up), and I have many time seen described hares about great houses where, despite their destructiveness, they were regarded as signs of prosperity rather than neglect. Thus in 1591 the surveyor and topographer Sir John Norden saw ‘greate store of Hares’ about the house at Holdenby, and although the harriers at Badminton were given up soon after 1740, John Parnell is only one of the later tourists who found the abundance of hares there ‘vastly pleasing’ if surprising: ‘The Plantation is now so large as not to fear Injury from them but I am surprised how at the first it Escaped so many Enemies as it must have had to Encounter.’ Similarly on his visits to Blenheim, John Byng always noticed and admired the hares, though back in Bedfordshire he more often described hunting them. Hares, as much as any other animal, signified abundance and pleasure in parkland – and they might be kept in the pleasure ground as pets.

Hares are singularly well-suited to the open, smooth terrain, firm and dry, with adjacent stubbles, that typifies parkland and in Shakespeare’s time, as now, the hare was primarily a creature of open country:

`Uncouple at the timorous flying hare,

… Pursue these fearful creatures o’er the downs,

And on thy well-breath’d horse keep with thy hounds’

Yet hare parks typically have clumps of trees in them (the new parks at Stanstead and Grimsthorpe appear to me unusual in this regard). The answer may be, as Oliver Goldsmith suggested, that hares had been hunted so hard that they had retreated to the woods (‘many of these animals are found to live in woods and thickets, but they are naturally fonder of the open country, and are constrained only by fear to take shelter in places that afford them neither a warm sun nor an agreeable pasture’). Hare parks were to be securely fenced, as Richard Surfleet put it in his translation from the French: ‘hares … must not be put in a parke fenced only with postes and pales: for seeing they are small, they will easily passe through the gaping and open spaces, and having got through, run away: Their parkes therefore must be walled about….’, and since they were at some distance from the house, and generally invisible from it, they gave 18th century designers the opportunity for singularly pure design, that is for design released from the geometry imposed on its setting by the house.

I leave you, Mr A, with William Smith’s account hare hunting with jumping poles in the fens:  ‘They get a Cast Line or 2 of them tied together and Two Horses mayhap or three at a Distance from each other these Lines to sweep the Ground till they put up the Hare when the Men who are prepared each with a long jumping pole have their Ropes and Horses and the Hare Dogs & men seem to leap the ditches with equal facility and such is the agility of Persons accustomed to this method of crossing the Drains that there are Persons who could cross a Drain 24 feet wide by means of a Jumping Pole’.

Now that would be an entertainment!