Out and About

It’s a long while since I caught up with WordPress. In fairness, a unusual number of things have happened lately:

  • My book  Hidden World of the Fox was released in mid-October! 🙂 Lots of excitement and press interviews, and a great opportunity to discuss foxes with a wide audience. You can listen to one of my radio interviews here.

It’s selling well with lots of good feedback, which has been lovely.

Fox in snow

  •  I went outside the known universe in early November. That is, I went to Iceland, the raw, otherworldly, superheated slab of geology that sits atop the North Atlantic Ridge. I should probably write up the experience in normal fashion, but here are a couple of photos for starters.

Iceland3 Nov 19

Aurora3 Iceland Nov 19

  •  Iceland, while dramatic for the mind, is brutal to cameras. My 200-500mm Tamron zoom lens, my long-suffering workhorse of the last 13 years, died in quite spectacular fashion literally seconds before I saw a minke whale. So while I saw plenty of cetaceans, I have no photos. I did manage to take this starling singing on a Christmas wreath…with my iPhone!

IMG_0580

  • Back in the UK, suspecting that iPhones might be insufficient for my future mammal photography, I set about acquiring a new camera lens. I settled on the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary 5 – 6.3, and while it weighs more than the Tamron, I am pleased with it so far. The extra reach makes all the difference when the foxes are on the far side of the meadows.

Fox1 BL 30 Nov 19

And although it’s not as fast as a Canon lens, it’s doing fine with nocturnal garden foxes too. I did consider a Canon prime, but having the flexibility of zoom is nearly essential with wild mammals because they are so mobile.

Big fox 29 Nov 19

Here’s in hope it won’t be another couple of months until my next post!

Antiquity

Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.

British_Pleistocene_Mammalia_(1866)_Red_Fox_Cranium

I happened across this drawing on Wikimedia last week, and was immediately struck by the curious thought that Edwardian scientists were drawing Pleistocene red fox bones not so many miles from where I now photograph those foxes’ probable descendants. This particular sketch dates from 1909 and is printed in A monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia, but the animal itself knew these hills many millennia ago.

What did it see on its daily travels? Its England was a kind that no living human has known. Spotted hyenas, straight-tusked elephants and cave lions roamed here, and foxes thrived alongside them all. They truly are a marvel of flexible pragmatism.

Today, of course, they live alongside us instead.

Fox PF 5 Jul 19

This vixen is known as ‘Pretty Face’. She has raised cubs this year, although she has not brought them to the garden. Her daily wanderings involve navigating cars, fences, and potentially dangerous introduced species such as pet cats. Like her ancestors, she survives.

Fox PF2 5 Jul 19

And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.

Fox and Cubs2 Jul 19

And yet, like the conventional fox, it speaks of a hidden story. While flesh-and-blood foxes came to what is now England under their own steam – we were still a peninsula attached to continental Europe at the time – the flower arrived with help. It was brought here by people almost 400 years ago, when the unfortunate Charles I was on the throne. It was thought to be a cure for poor eyesight, but soon escaped into the countryside and has brightened up roadsides ever since.

I wonder if the first gardener who planted it realised that it would long outlast the king.

The Sleeping Fox

fox vixen sleeping 23 jan 19

My original blog on the much-missed Opera Community was called ‘The Sitting Fox’ in honour of a vulpine cliché: when watching something that they’re not sure about, they sit down.

But outright relaxation is not unknown. This vixen from the Across the Road Group dozed peacefully in the garden last week while her mate and a low-ranking male raged in mock battle – biting the hedgerow, half-chasing, talking with their tails like cats.

It didn’t turn violent. The younger male even turned his back on his rival between their squabbles.

fox dun rival 23 jan 19

The vixen hardly batted an eye. We’re coming towards the end of the breeding season, and she is almost certainly pregnant by now. Her mate is the Dun Male, here on the right. Apologies for the quality of this picture; it’s a still off the movie camera.

fox dun male and vixen 23 jan 19

The Across the Road Group. Of all the fox groups in my village, they’re the ones whom I know the best. Six years of drama, and no sign of slowing. So many unforgettable characters have lived in this group: the original Vixen from Across the Road, who raised her cubs despite losing half her territory to builders; the White Socks Vixen, tiny, nervous and unquenchable; the Cavalier Cub, White Socks’ son, whose domineering, bombastic personality disrupted the fox territory network in multiple streets.

Let’s hope these two have some cubs and we can see what chapter comes next.

White Socks Vixen – 2017

fox white socks1 19 may 2017

Luna’s Eye

Cold: the frost is as thick as grease. Windows feathered into impossible patterns. Soil like iron. As the winter stars slide into the west, a red eye blinks.

Blood moon2 21 Jan 19.jpg

The Earth is unique in the solar system for having such a moon of such proportions. Others are bigger, like Jupiter’s Ganymede, but their parent planet dwarfs them. Not our moon, which is about a quarter the diameter of the Earth. Cold, airless and silent, it circles us, amazing us, and just occasionally falling into Earth’s shadow. We had a full lunar eclipse last night, and it was well worth a very early vigil with the camera.

Luna chased the stars into the west, and left us; daylight began with frozen fog. By afternoon, it had burned through, and roe deer were wandering.

roe deer3 21 jan 19

roe deer 21 jan 19

This is the only deer species that is frequently encountered in my part of England, and much less social than its bigger relatives.

I saw the male fox from the ‘courting couple’ of the sheep pasture, but he was in a rush and there was little chance for a photo. Slightly more of a view yesterday, when he trotted through the mist.

fox bl 20 jan 19

I haven’t seen the vixen, but no doubt she’s around.

I wonder if they saw Luna last night.

That Time of Year

January has two meanings for foxes: the breeding season, and voles. Subzero days coax field voles into daylight foraging, and their predators hurriedly follow suit. Happily for the fox-watcher, they are highly visible while questing for lunch.

fox bl 4 jan 19

And when they’re not thinking about food, they’re concentrating on each other!

foxes courting 17 jan 2019

Foxes have a complicated social life. Groups consist of a breeding pair, their cubs, and sometimes offspring from previous years. They do not hunt together like wolves, but protect a common boundary. But between – and sometimes within – these territorial homelands are a significant number of free-ranging, nomadic foxes, including dispersers searching for a vacant home.

Moreover, many large males trespass freely during the breeding season, sometimes triggering fights. We’ve had an interesting situation here this winter with an exceptionally high number of big roaming males, most of whom I don’t recognise. Doubtless they’ll disappear again before the spring.

Meanwhile, the courting pairs stay close, more or less ignoring their neighbours in the pasture.

foxes and sheep bl 17 jan 2018

The sheep seem to care little about fox territories.

foxes courting2 17 jan 2019

But the grass knows – foxes have scent glands on the edges of their mouths, transmitting information that other vulpines will note.

foxes courting3 17 jan 2019

Hopefully this pair will produces cubs. We’ll find out in the spring.

Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.