Skip to main content

The Animated Hare Project: University of Exeter Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Sean Doherty discusses the production of the film, The History of the Hare, which is available via BBC arts and culture

The story of one of Britain’s most mysterious animals is told through the new animated film, The History of the Hare, an Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project, co-led by Exeter Professor Naomi Sykes and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Sean Doherty. Available to watch via the BBC Arts and Culture website the film is based on research conducted by numerous academics at the Universities of Exeter, Oxford and Leicester, as well as heritage institutions, Historic England and Fishbourne Roman Palace. Through this animated story, we trace back to the brown hare’s introduction during the Iron Age, its status as a sacred creature central to expressions of fertility and rebirth, and subsequent decline as a result of the threat of hunting and industrialised agriculture. The film concludes, however, that this animal’s story is one of resilience.

The film was produced through a broad level of collaboration between academics and heritage organisations, which, according to Dr Doherty, was essential. “As part of our AHRC-funded Easter E.g. project  we’ve been conducting a programme of zooarchaeological and biomolecular analysis of hare and rabbit remains to examine the bio-cultural history of these species. This requires going to museums, archives, archaeological excavation units, and trawling through excavated material to find bones. Storage of archaeological material in environmentally controlled spaces is expensive and, in times of budgetary constraints, local authorities and museums may see this as something they can’t afford and look to streamline their collections. So it’s really important that we highlight the value of storing this material.”

In particular, the strong collaboration between Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex, was essential to the project. Here, the team found the remains of the earliest rabbit in Britain. Dr Doherty revealed that the heritage organisation has been storing archaeological material that has been excavated there since the 1960s, adding: “it’s important that we don’t use them as a place to collect samples and then leave, but instead they become key partners, where we can draw upon their expert knowledge but also work to help them.”

In terms of the project’s impact on his own research, Dr Doherty stated that a key benefit of making the video was learning to present academic research to the public. “The feedback from the production company to our first script was that we used terminology and ideas which seem commonplace to us but might not be understood by the general public. So, we had to really pare the script back, and think about how to communicate our ideas in the simplest and most widely understandable way. This was really enjoyable and has been great experience for future public outreach, which we will do!”

The video has a very artistic style, an aesthetic inspired by the 1978 film Watership Down. When asked about this, Dr Doherty revealed that “an animated film about lagomorphs seemed natural. Brown hares have featured in artistic motifs since their introduction. In the Iron Age they featured on bejewelled broches depicting these new exotic animals, later we have the three-hare symbol, and more recently clothing brands such as Joules use a hare. Over the millennia the hare has been used by different groups to express different ideas, so we wanted to encapsulate their changing artistic depiction.”

The film came about through an AHRC/BBC Call called ‘Culture in Quarantine’, a series which the team had applied to. For much of the year the arts and heritage sectors had been closed and, as a result, the BBC commissioned bitesize videos about cultural topics which could be viewed at home. The entire project was conducted remotely.

Be sure to keep an eye out for a children’s story book launching in 2021, a project co-authored by Professor Sykes’ team and Fishbourne Roman Palace. To check out the Animated Hare Project: The History of the Hare, please see: