Thursday Thoughts: Fox

Mersey with book

Rescued fox Mersey modelling my book courtesy of the Highland Fox Sanctuary

A fox has trotted past the George Orwell statue that guards the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Its image is on paper, and its soul is – I trust – glimpsed through my words. It’s October 2018, and The Hidden World of the Fox has brought to the wild to the city, and me to the media.

These foxes – nature’s orange thread woven through puddled streets that we presume to know – enchant us, puzzle us, and occasionally frighten us. I wrote Fox because their stories were worthy to be heard. I wanted to share my observations and unlock the science from the inaccessible journals where it often hides. And also, of course, to reflect on the occasional public concerns about a raw wild animal loose in a world designed for people, and promote the idea that we can find constructive ways to share space.

Three years on, and Fox is now sold across multiple continents and languages, a reminder of the species’ staggering natural range – and unshakable hold on our thoughts. Sometimes they stare at me, and I could fantasise that they know of their wider fame: Ylvis, Aesop, The Animals of Farthing Wood, modern takes on aurora myths, and so much more. But they are too busy bothering magpies, stealing dog toys and shrieking cold wrath at each other.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

Foxes may ignore authors and scientists, but the feeling is not mutual. Research continues apace. A recent study from Spain concludes that foxes can help the beleaguered Eurasian wildcat by separating it from free-roaming domestic cats, with which it is prone to hybridise (although there will be many things that affect wildcat survival, and the study seems limited). Research in Germany examines social perception and tolerance of foxes, as did a paper that I co-authored in the UK. In the media, the likely connection between foxes and the so-called M25 Cat Killer continues to do the rounds in waves of misunderstanding.

They’re doing well enough in towns, expanding into previously scarcely-colonised British cities, but are probably in decline in the countryside. The rabbit collapse is likely to be part of that story, especially given that alternative food like voles, berries and invertebrates are under pressure from agriculture and other intensive land uses.

But there are still foxes on the edge of our world, writing something wild into our shadows.

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

Hauling Out

There is something indelibly printed on the British psyche that we must, at unpredictable intervals, approach the sea. Our coastline is as jagged as if a child had drawn it – a fair-sized island we might be, but it is still staggering that we’ve have over 10,000 miles of coastline. Icecream, sandcastles, Victorian piers, laughing swimmers taking Christmas dips; all of that is true of course, along with far too many coastal towns struggling with poverty, but none of is the whole story. The coast has its wild too, and it is big!

Grey seals2 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Grey seals. If people head seaward, seals lumber landward, most especially at this time of year when the pupping season is almost upon us.

Grey seals3 Horsey 25 Oct 21

For these magnificent beasts, Britain is defined by its haul-out potential: it is merely a beach just above the sea. In fact we have a good part of the entire global population, and the biggest colonies number in the thousands. Bulls argue half-heartedly in the surf.

Grey seals1 Horsey 25 Oct 21

They can weigh over 800 pounds, or approximately equal to 16,000 dormice. They are inelegant on land – they are built for water, with sensitive whiskers that help them catch sand eels, cod and other marine prey.

Grey seals4 Horsey 25 Oct 21

It is often said that the UK has two species of seal, and it is true that only the grey and the smaller common seal are generally here, but we are occasionally graced by extra guests from the Arctic. Ringed seals and bearded seals aren’t unknown. And, of course, a certain famous walrus. Attracting the crowds. Marine mammals tend to do that.

But it’s not always in their interest, either with walruses in Cornwall or seals in Norfolk. I took all these photos with a 600mm lens in a designated viewing area on the dunes. But every year, there a few people who try to approach them for selfies or allow their dogs to get out of control. The Friends of Horsey Seals have wardens on site to manage the situation for the best benefit of both people and seals.

Oblivious to human fascination, they continue to beautify the sea.

Grey seals5 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Sleep

Noun:

  1. a condition of body and mind that typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.
  2. a dormouse.

Dormouse1 23 Oct 21

Technically, this little one is in torpor, a kind of day-hibernation that occurs on the edges of their active season. It will soon go to ground properly, heading to the woodland floor to weave a tight nest about itself and disappear until March or even May.

Sleep well.

Dormouse2 23 Oct 21

Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

***

This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

***

We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

***

Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

Storyteller Willow

There’s a panther in the willow tree. At least, in the mind of a six year old me, holding the family cat against the wrinkled old bark and my imagination fired into the exotic. Willows will do that to you – maybe it is their limbs, waterfalls of grey-green leaves tumbling earthward like plaited hair, or their voices, crack of old bark and rustle in the wind.

Crack willow is abundant in wetter parts of Norfolk, and is rather more at home here than my old companion was in the dry chalky North Downs. It is a grey trim along the riverbanks like a furry coat lining, leaning towards the water, reflected back towards the sky.

Crack willow2 4 Sept 21

Willows always retain one limb inside the human imagination. Perhaps JRR Tolkien saw a hollowed shell such as this before the hobbits had their misadventure with Old Man Willow?

Crack willow3 4 Sept 21

And as for the Wind in the Willows – Ratty, my favourite character, is properly called a water vole, and he still stars in Norfolk’s waterworlds.

Water vole2 21 Aug 21

A rushed photo admittedly, but I was thrilled to glimpse it at all. These large aquatic rodents have had a catastrophic decline in the UK due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Bizarrely, a few days later I saw another mammal swimming up the river.

Squirrel swimming 25 Aug 21

Yes, that is a grey squirrel, and it was swimming well enough and making for the bank. It probably fell out of a willow. Is it just my imagination that the tree could jettison a climber so easily?

Keep listening to willows. They must have many more stories.

Crack willow 4 Sept 21

An Ecosystem of Boxes

Everything in nature is in orbit around something: foxes around rabbits, rabbits tugged by sandy soil, sand towards – well, wherever the ferocious Pleistocene winds heaped it back in the days when ice sheets were driving East Anglia’s climate. Ecologists, too, can be found where their favoured species live, usually being attacked by thorn-laced vegetation while tracking their target.

Dormice like bramble and low tangled branches. Surveys are seldom painless. But it is always worth it.

Dormouse2 15 Aug 21

I went back to Surrey last weekend to join the monthly box check. The nest boxes are basically backwards-facing bird boxes, usually fifty per site, and checked under licence due to the dormouse’s strict legal protections. Results for August: three adults, including two mothers with very young litters – an excellent total of ten dormice.

They are put briefly in bags to be weighed before being returned to their nests.

Dormouse1 15 Aug 21

Hazel leaves and strips of honeysuckle bark are a dormouse’s favoured materials; the birds that sometimes take over the nest boxes are bolder in their experiments. This long-abandoned nest is woven with moss, feathers and badger fur!

Bird nest Aug 21

But birds and dormice are far from the only woodland creatures that take an interest in the boxes. Despite their name, dormice are not ‘mice’ at all, but distant relations of squirrels. Real mice, such as wood mice, have hairless tails.

Wood mouse 15 Aug 21

Also unlike dormice, wood mice are lively and inclined to nip, although less so than the yellow-necked mouse, their large cousin, also in the boxes this month.

Yellow necked mouse 15 Aug 21

Shrews, toads and even snakes have been found in dormouse boxes on occasion. But mostly it is about the ones that they are put out for, raising their families and sleeping in honeysuckle bark until winter brings hibernation.

Dormouse3 15 Aug 21

Hopefully many of this month’s babies will enjoying the blackberries and hazelnuts soon.

Wild East

Agrimony and burdock: plants that cling to you. Their seeds have hooks that love fur and clothes. The parents of these plants, in fact, clung to my dog, and fell off her somewhere on the front drive. So they grew.

Agrimony and burdock Jul 21

Places can cling to you too. I moved from Norfolk – England’s wide-skied east – in 2012 after finishing my MSc, but never really left it behind. Now I’m back, and the Yare is still flowing. In its own way, so subtly it reflects the clouds.

Meadow cranesbill 27 Jul 21

Norfolk is wetter, drier, colder, flatter than nearly anything in England available for comparison. It is the gateway to the sunken plains of Doggerland – a land bridge to the continent long since snapped. Mammoths, hyenas, Romans, Vikings and Iceni rebels; they’ve all called the sprawling Norfolk landscape their own. So did many of my own ancestors, who farmed Breckland for centuries and must have often heard stone curlews wailing under the stars.

I have heard something else: a deer with the voice of a fox.

Muntjac munching 26 Jul 21

She was literally two feet from me, right below my window; I had to switch to my macro lens to take the photo. She is a Reeves’ muntjac, a preposterously tiny deer about the dimensions of a border collie. Not a British native, but firmly established – they were introduced to Bedfordshire in the 19th century, and further releases or escapes cemented their presence. Like water deer, they are indigenous to China. 

Norfolk is most famous as the best birding county in England, but it is also very rich in wild mammals. I heard a water vole this morning. That is, a plop as something small dived into a ditch near the Yare. Otters, foxes, and harvest mice are also around and I will try to catch up with more of them over the summer.

Fly and campion 28 Jul 21

The Unseen

“Quite so,” Sherlock Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe…That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” – A Scandal in Bohemia

And I know that there were two foxes beside a lane busy with walkers and cyclists last week, because, well, I was looking for them, and one tends to see what one is looking for.

Fox snow rest 7 Jan 20

Here’s the first, a very large male fox which I didn’t recognise. Almost certainly, he is a visitor from outside the parish who is wandering in hope of meeting a vixen or two; we are right at the peak of the breeding season. He saw many people that afternoon, but they were oblivious to him.

And here’s the second, a much younger male who is a local resident.

Fox watching at dusk2 7 Jan 20

He, too, went unnoticed by the family cycling by, and a walker with music buds in her ears. And if people want to walk through the countryside glued to their phones, they have every right to do so of course; but what is the accumulative effect of missing so much? 

We see, in the spirit of Dr Watson, that the Surrey Hills are green and pretty. We do not observe, as Holmes would have us, that goldfinches sing from the telephone wires and herb-robert brightens roadsides in the spring, that roe deer have left footprints in the mud and woodcock display over quiet fields at night. Therefore, we also do not notice how ‘tidiness’, over-mowing, over grazing and hedgerow cutting are impoverishing us. It doesn’t matter if we cannot put names to all the species we see; simply observing them and acknowledging their uniqueness is the key to their world.

When we do slow down, take a break from social media, turn off the music, we observe the most marvellous things.

Spider web 10 Jan 21

It may be a bit late for a New Year resolution, but here is a challenge: every time you go out for a lockdown walk, find just one natural thing – even as small as a spider’s web – and think about how it fits into the grander tapestry. 

Of Work and Play

Foxes personify elegant mystery, a touch of the alien in our familiar streets. That photo of the ‘ghost’ in the mist in my last post has become one of the most popular that I’ve ever shared on Facebook, but there is another side to Fox: whimsical, obsessive…shoe-loving.

“Why?” is the thought that comes to many minds. Science cannot interview foxes to ascertain their motives. It can, however, confirm that foxes adore shoes, all shoes, everywhere in the world it seems. Some, like the vixen jokingly called ‘Imelda’ in Germany, become specialists in it and collect hundreds. A couple of winters ago, one fox in my village took five wellington boots.

And even in remote corners of the world, in lands like India’s Thar Desert – where people blend with mirages over the salty flats – there are thefts.

p1c desert fox shoe

Because there are foxes.

p1 desert fox1

A captured shoe is typically chewed, tossed about, urinated on and abandoned. Adults are at least as prone to this behaviour as cubs. The leathery texture might be pleasant for their mouths, but in truth they readily snatch any ‘toy’ that we leave within their grasp. Gloves, dog toys, footballs – if they can lift it, they will play with it. The portrayal of Swiper in Dora the Explorer is not really unreasonable.

They retain their moments of frivolity, even as the breeding season peaks. Scent-marking continues in the woods, and their barks echo through the chill damp at night.

Our world has ground to a standstill again, but theirs keeps on turning.