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

Ground-blue

Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.

Bluebells1 May 21

Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.

Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.

Bluebells2 May 21

Or frames a passing fox.

Fox in bluebells May 2021

England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.

Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.

Bluebells3 May 21

Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.

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.

Ghost

Fox mist 1 Jan 21

The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.

January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.

Squirrel breakfast 1 Jan 21

They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.

I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.

Red squirrel IoW 23 May 2019

Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.

Albino squirrel 1 Jan 21

We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.

I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.

Starlights

Christmas has rolled by, short and sweet for most of us, perhaps mingled with some gratitude that 2020 is almost over. This year has been hard for people and bleak for wildlife, but the stars are still bright – and the planets, when the clouds have deigned to let us see them. Our closest star looks on through the haze.

Sunrise Dec 20

Down on terra firma, I’m seeing a few foxes as they quarter the chilled roads in search of mates, but the trailcam has obtained better views. Scent-marking, scent-marking – the woods reek of it, even to us humans; foxes must find it as ‘loud’ as a high street draped in advertising banners. And everyone is trying to shout out their message over the top of the neighbour’s!

The first three clips here tell of intense rivalry and trespass:

1) Trespasser: a male fox urinates on a tree;

2) Trespasser: a second, very assertive male (just look at how he is holding his brush!) rubs himself in it, perhaps to disguise his own scent;

3) the territory owner finally arrives, and stands bemused.

For roe deer, that drama is long since over – they mate in summer, much earlier than most deer, but the foetus only starts to develop about now. Even the weather seems to fall off them, literally, as they shake out the rain.

I hope to spend more time on this blog next year; with one thing and another, it’s fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. I hope everyone has a peaceful new year. 

Window on the Wild

Fox intense 22 Aug 20

Judging books by their covers, or something like that. They say that eyes are windows into the soul, and there’s a jolt in the raw intensity of a fox. But this one’s apparent mood is misleading; he has diluted pupils due to low light levels, not because he feels as sharp as a cat that has spied its favourite ball.

The fox physique is often misunderstood. Trotting across a road, they seem much bigger than their 14in high selves. And what about their fur? We are taught the fox uniform from childhood: fluffy, sleek, maybe dusted with snow.

Fox in snow

Not at the moment, that’s for certain. The male fox with his intense eyes is sporting the almost skin-tight fur of late summer, although the weather is cooling fast and his sleekness will soon abandon him.

Fox in summer 22 Aug 20

The adaptability of foxes is a multidimensional marvel. Not only can they live from the Arctic circle to Saudi Arabia, and eat everything from earthworms to hackberries to wolf-killed deer, they also react to the seasons in a way that our lives in climate-controlled houses find alien. True, our outdoor clothing thickens as the year grows old, but generally we change our whole outfits at once, not from the toes upward.

Half a moult

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has some of the most extreme seasons on Earth, and this fox – who I met some years ago – has to cope with anything between -50c and +45c. In England, their moults are a little less ragged, but it is still not uncommon for a fox losing its winter coat to be incorrectly suspected of having mange.

Conversely, these perfectly healthy foxes in Croatia (where I worked in 2017) look skinny because the unbearable heat of Dalmatia denies them a thick coat.

For every season, there is a fox, and it wears its own fashion.

One Red Stable

One cold, cold morning when I was a student in Norwich, I grabbed a dog and a camera and went for a stroll. I didn’t know that I was about to experience one of my most bizarre wildlife sightings – a perfect performance of the comic-drama that is magpie vs fox. Actually, magpies: nine of them. And one very puzzled little fox who hid in a stable.

Fox and magpies7 111016

Before, well, being cornered.

Fox and magpies6 111016

On Saturday, I walked that path again as summer rain and warmth battled without clear victor. No fox this weekend, but the stable is still there, albeit repainted.

Stable Norwich 27 Jun 20

And the Yare is still running, or slowly shuffling, whatever Norfolk rivers do.

Yare1 Norwich 27 Jun 20

Its personality is worlds apart from the frothy energy of a Yorkshire stream, or the seasonal extremes in North Downs winterbournes. For its size, Britain is the most geologically diverse place in the world, which feeds through into astonishingly varied landscapes. Maybe that was in the mind of the sculpture as he created the Man of Stones who stands guard by the river.

Man of Stones

The northern half of the East Anglian peninsula is like nowhere else in England – a vast, open landscape of arable farms, marshland and reeds, turning into crumbling cliffs or very wild saltmarshes on the coast. Not surprisingly, it supports some of our rarest wildlife. And none is more iconic than the mighty marsh harrier.

p26 marsh harrier

Occasionally, they are joined by white-tailed eagles flying across from the continent. I saw neither this weekend, but the boardwalk where I’ve watched so many songbirds over the years was briefly shadowed by a reed bunting.

Boardwalk

And field edges were brightened with poppies.

Poppy 27 Jun 20

And then the rain returned, reminding all that although Norfolk might be land, it is really all about sky and water.

Broad Norwich 27 Jun 20

A Garden Romance

I forget when we decided to call the badger ‘Dyson’. He earned his name, for he is without doubt a hoover: anything edible is swept up in effortless aplomb. He cuts a fine figure against the lamp-lit flowerbeds of night.

Badger Dyson 26 May 20

Yes, this is a night photo. Eurasian badgers –  Meles meles – are nocturnal, or at least they’re supposed to be. Over the past few weeks, there have been an abnormally high number of daylight badger clips circulating on social media, which may or may not relate to the dry weather and the clear difficulty in finding earthworms, their main diet.

Badgers are also sociable. Group size averages six, but Dyson arrived here alone. Dispersal from the family sett is less common in badgers than it is in foxes, and a bite wound on his rump suggested that his departure might not have been by choice. Weeks became months, and he is still a nightly fixture, sharing the garden with mice and owls.

And of course, foxes. For the most part, they ignore him. For the most part. Not always.

But on Tuesday, the tables turned. Pretty Face, the oldest of our foxes, lounged by the path, ignoring Dyson in his hoovering.

Fox Pretty Face 26 May 20

Then her ears twitched. Her eyes darkened. She stared at the gate, her body language flickering between defensive and assertive.

Fox Pretty Face angry cat2 26 May 20

I waited, expecting to see her confront a rival fox. But no: by the gate was a second striped face!

Badger Hetty 26 May 20

So Dyson has a mate. He greeted her with mutual grooming.

Badgers greeting 26 May 20

And they have been here together every night since.

Badgers two1 26 May 20

Perhaps the garden will be full of badger cubs next year.

Bright Bunting

I’ve been in an air raid shelter. Years ago, in the back garden of the old family house’s elderly next door neighbour – I used to play afternoon Scrabble with her, and she showed me the twisting stairs in the rambling lawn. Down there was the bunker where she had once had to hide.

This week air raid sirens blared again, but in memory rather than anger: Friday saw the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe. Of course, we are still in lockdown and street parties are impossible. But nothing can stop this village decorating its gardens, or indeed its hall, and the show was bright.

VE Day1

VE Day2

We are only a small community, but we lost 14 men in action during the war – one of whom was given a posthumous Victoria Cross.

I have no bunting, but I did find the right colours, more or less, in a fox pausing by flowers planted in our own uncertain times.

Fox in flowers 7 May 20

And then there was the milkwort: a tiny flower of chalk downland that is as varied as the sky.

It grows on the steep southern flanks of my parish, where fields that have escaped modern agriculture still support a rich tapestry of living things. My maternal grandfather walked there too, and photographed bee orchids.

Family2

He served in Burma as an RAF officer; my paternal grandfather was in France.

Now I am here with my own dog, looking for flowers, tracking foxes, watching the world change. We all know that many difficulties are ahead, but that cannot blind our gratitude that we are at least free to rise to that challenge.

The natural world still breathes. Flowers still grow.

Sunset 16 Apr 20