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!

Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

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

Canada: Song Dog Days

September 2018

Could we ever spend a hour looking through the eyes of a coyote? I think it would overwhelm us. We see the wild in passing, usually from a car these days. The coyote hears it, smells it, lives it. The stories that they could tell!

coyote dog days2 sept 18

It’s the last evening in the park for me. And I could ask for nothing more: a family of coyotes in the fescue prairie west of Riding Mountain, resting and watching, as coyotes do.

And wandering a little.

coyote dog days3 sept 18

Coyotes are omnivorous, just like foxes and bears. Berries are on the menu tonight!

coyote eating berries1 25 sept 2018

Four coyotes? Perhaps more. Certainly three adults and a pup.

coyote dog days4 sept 18

They’re waiting for winter. I’m waiting to travel again. Hard to believe, just eight days and so much wildness. Now we’re bound for Toronto and the long journey home.

I had some concerns about returning here after my long absence, afraid that the old essence had become diluted by relentless over-development and over-tourism. And there are problems, it is true; not on the scale of what Jasper and Banff are enduring, but even the prairie hasn’t escaped commercialism. I was especially concerned at the new road being built in East Block of Grasslands, a highly questionable action that seems to have gone unnoticed by Canadian NGOs. And Canada’s federal and provincial biodiversity protection laws could be tightened up. That is not news. Nor is the bubbling friction between people and large wildlife in some rural districts.

But there is still so much life in the Great Lone Land. Taste of the air or the glow of a lynx’s eyes? Hear it in the coyote’s song and the catch the shadow of an owl on a forgotten farmstead. It is something, intangible and free. Coyote, bears, moose, prairie dogs – they’re still here.

Long may they remain so.

The Mystery Fox

Fox One eye sleeping1 170117

I’m trying to remember when One-Eye first appeared in the garden. I can certainly remember my first sighting of him – it was in a local pasture, when he was a slim reddish yearling travelling with his brother. But the date is eluding me.

I didn’t guess then that this sleep-loving visitor would become the top fox of the Horse Meadows Group, whose territory includes my garden. But all kings have rivals. The HMG has a problem: another fox family just overlaps their territorial border.

That second group – I call them the Across the Road foxes – has produced the most irrepressible vulpine characters in my parish. Here’s One-Eye facing off against one of the Across the Road vixens.

One Eye and White Socks 11 May 2017

He loses, regularly. Any doubt about the Across the Road group’s supremacy was extinguished last year when they produced four of the most bullish cubs that I’ve ever met. At the same time, the HMG suffered habitat loss from overgrazing and development. Then its veteran vixen Pretty Face joined the Across the Road group! It’s like a fox soap opera.

As for One Eye – he vanished in January, no doubt because the AtR cubs were so domineering. None more so than this chap: Cavalier Cub, who has a swagger that a cat would envy.

Fox Cavalier cub 24 Feb 2018

Weeks turned into months, and still no sign of One-Eye. I was sadly concluding that he was probably dead. But at the end of June, there he was, resting on the parched lawn!

One Eye 28 June 2018

Where did his travels take him? Potentially many miles away, possibly even into Kent or Sussex – foxes can wander far. It is also possible that he was living quietly on the edge of his territory all this time, waiting for the AtR youngsters to release their grip on the garden. Cavalier’s mob are still around, but less fixated on the garden than they used to be.

Anyway, One-Eye is a regular visitor again. But he’s prioritising sleep, and not sharing his mysteries.

 

The Fox in the Shadows

Ever since I started blogging on the much-missed Opera Community, I have been followed by a joke that foxes are, well, following me. Almost everywhere I have been in this world, I have been greeted by one sitting, as they do, watching at a distance.

Of course, they watch me in my garden as well…

Fox Pretty Face4 15 Dec 2017

This is a vixen known locally as ‘Pretty Face’. She is a veteran member of the Horse Meadows Group, which dominates a large area of my parish. Her tiny muzzle and cat-like ears are so distinctive.

Her neighbours to the north are the Across the Road group, who have had a lively year. Four cubs were born to them last spring; they soon dwarfed their parents – in size, but also in personality, which was no small challenge. This one has become known as the Cavalier Cub. He’s still a nightly visitor.

Fox Cavalier cub2a 9 Dec 2017

He has grown into a fox of strange habits. Last night, he stood up on his hind legs with his forefeet on a conifer tree and proceeded to scratch his claws like a cat. He’s very playful, almost puppyish; you can see a video of his games here.

I haven’t seen his mother for a long time. She was a tiny, white-footed vixen who seemed wildly hostile to all other foxes, even her mate.

Fox White Socks2 19 May 2017

And another place that foxes tend to turn up is in my drawing book 😉

Fox drawing

Romania: Mesendorf – Bear Country

I was 18 years old and in a dusty little jeep when I saw my first wild bear. It was grab-a-blanket kind of cold, as Indian sal forests are on wintry mornings; but Ranthambhore – better known for its Bengal tigers – infused the mood with a tropical vibe. Golden land speckled with trees collapsed into a valley beside us, and on the further ridge a sloth bear waddled by, on some errand known only to itself.

I don’t know how many bears I’ve seen since – hundreds, maybe thousands. Black bears and grizzlies dominated my days in western Canada. They leave their tracks, they smash their trees, and they try to live amidst people who only grudgingly tolerate them.

Grizzly10 110626

This huge male grizzly was in Jasper, Alberta. We’re always looking for a symbol for Wilderness, it seems. Bears are the spirit of mountain and taiga. There is no wilderness without large carnivores, but it doesn’t follow that large carnivores only live in wilderness.

People have now taken over practically all the Earth. If we cannot work out how to conserve wolves and bears in human-dominated landscapes, we will lose them everywhere. No national park is big enough – and some places have plenty of bears without having parks at all…

9th July 2016

There is hope for Europe’s large carnivores, maybe; it depends how you weave this fragile thread of human psychology. It all began this morning – I was standing, Newton-like, under the apple tree on the edge of our orchard-camp, awaiting today’s group. We are plunging into the unknown, where no large mammal survey team has gone before.

Choosing a new transect is an exciting business in a forest where any given track might spit you into a monstrous boggy bramble patch. The Hiking Pole gets a taste of bushwhacking.

But we strike gold.

Bear track at Daia

This is the footprint of a fairly small bear, living and breathing in a working landscape. Full of people, full of bears. Of course, a track is an invitation to take a plaster cast, like we did back in Richis.

Bear cast 270616

There’s no realistic prospect of actually meeting a bear within these rolling forests. They hear us and scatter, leaving the trees as silent witnesses.

Mes woods

So, come evening, we try something else.

Time drifts on. Clouds build into a grey matrix; rain spits, and stops again. I’m joining two university students with A. on a wildlife search tonight. He arrives smartly in a little dark jeep. He’s about forty, with a shaved head and thickset features – and he knows his stuff. We have only been driving for a few minutes when I ask, almost ironically, whether the striped feline sitting in the grass is a domestic cat. It has to be.

Really.

It isn’t.

Wildcat2b

It’s a forest wildcat, one of the rarest and most elusive animals in Europe. It resembles a tabby because it’s related to the ancestor of our pet cats, but genetically is a very different kettle of fish. Scotland calls them Highland Tigers; they’re extinct in England. Untameable, almost mythological, this is the cat that hunted Europe’s forests long before people came to name them.

Romania has one of the most robust wildcat populations still surviving. They are considerably bigger than pet cats, but also be distinguished by their neck stripes, dorsal stripe and, most of all, that thick banded tail.

Wildcat banner

I’m stunned.

Onward, past a crumbling village with brightly painted houses defying rubbish-strewn streets and bricks fallen the spire of a fortified church. Thin children and tiny puppies watch – it feels like India.

A. goes offroad. It seems reasonable. You walk across meadows, you drive across meadows…except I’m not sure I would attempt these slippery grassy hills even on foot. We slide. We roar. We climb. We descend. A. describes my reaction to his driving as ‘interesting’.

We bounce through knee-high grass, yellow and purple flowers within touching distance, wheels churning as we ascend improbably high. The topography is fascinating, deep valleys slicing into the hills like the whorls of a lettuce. We are on a podium, maybe – four human figures entirely encircled by rounded wood-topped hills. The sky laces into an ever more complex tangle of white and grey, and lightning leaps behind it like a small child trying to get a view.

Terrible weather for bears. Clouds break loose and drift beneath the horizon line. Thunder and lightning batter the jeep. A. passes the time by showing us pictures of his Hungarian vizsla dogs, which he uses for truffle hunting. He says the maximum he has made is 180 euro, but the big Italian restaurants sell his truffles for over 1000 euro. He is not happy about it.

Another valley, and the rain is easing. I scan the grass with binoculars – certainly a bear-coloured mound. It lifts its head, and mounds don’t have heads, or long furry ears. My first glimpse of a European brown bear is very short but puts happy context on all the tracks of the last three weeks.

Back in camp, everyone hears about the wildcat immediately, and I’m asked if I was pleased with the drive.

Yes, because I want Europe to retain its wild carnivores. And because maybe there is still hope.

Wildcat3