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.

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 Painter

It’s all Russia’s fault, apparently. They say a giant painter was sploshing whitewash over Siberia and stopped to shake out his brush over Britain – or something like that.

Spring rolled into the calendar to be greeted with -10C (14F) and snow so powdery that it danced in the wind like leaves.

Snowscape2 3 Mar 2018

We have snow every winter in the North Downs, but this ‘beast from the east’ has been unusually greedy in swallowing the entire country just when the birds and flowers were coming alive. For the foxes, it is business as usual: dig up buried supplies and seek small rodents under the snow.

Fox 28 Feb 2018

They hardly seem to notice the fierce windchill.

Dun Male2 27 Feb 2018

Roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, and blend into the leafless branches.

Roe deer 28 Feb 2018

Snow is a beautiful challenge. It starts by painting the paths, and ends in waterfalls dripping through the trees.

Path 27 Feb 2018

But the grass is returning. Spring is ready to restart.

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: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

Snapshot_18

Red fox

Snapshot_11

Wild boar

Snapshot_15

Roe deer

Snapshot_14

Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

Snapshot_9

And…

Snapshot_7

After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Viscri – Land of Lost Trailcams

June – August 2016

The peace is superficial. From Viscri’s high ridges, you can see the land folding higher and ever higher into the Carpathians – but something is in the foreground. It has hooves.

Carpathians from Viscri

Livestock explains a lot about Viscri. Modernisation has boosted sheep, perhaps for the wool to knit those socks for tourists. Not only is the sheep / cow ratio skewed, but the actual sheep flocks are also much bigger.

Sheep flock Viscri

More hooves to trample the meadows, and more mouths to eat it. The grass is cropped low with sharply reduced biodiversity. The only exception is within a rusty barbed wire fence: a tiny but gorgeous meadow saved by the local beekeeper for his bees.

Beekeeper meadow

With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.

Sand lizard3

Something doesn’t feel right. Wild boar bones litter the wood – someone has been poaching. I’ve got a bad feeling about leaving the trail cameras here.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Viscri has a signpost to Brasov, arguably the most famous flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict in Europe.

Signpost to Brasov

Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…

Asking directions

July 15th

The cows are coming home. I can hear them mooing from my room. A less common event in town is the decorating of a gate with conifer branches and balloons. Men were playing eastern-sounding music as they worked. There will be a wedding tomorrow.

July 19th

Dogs. Sheep. East Transect.

The skies are grey with fluctuating patches of blue, painting random lighted patches on the green landscape.

Fluffy cotton wool – or rather, dirty cotton wool. Sheep are dotted on the overgrazed grass in a flock both coherent and borderless.

The track rises swiftly over what might be an esker. What is this? Heads pop up. Heads, heads, heads. Giant dogs burst forth, barking. But the numbers! There are eleven, at least, although I don’t remember counting, and each is the size of an English mastiff or bigger. They flow towards us like an army out of Narnia: white and brown, or grey, or white, with massive St Bernard heads and torn ears. Some are like Spanish mastiffs, but with longer, unkempt coats.

We have no stick. We have no pepper spray.

I don’t make eye contact with the dogs and feel nothing. Time blends into a swirl. So much barking. Occasionally I notice a passing dog with angry eyes and barking jowls – the pack has encircled us. No elk ever brought to bay by wolves was so trapped, but then, elk that stand still are those that survive.

Some while later, the shepherd ambles over. He displays no concern whatsoever. He is perhaps in his forties, with a brimless black hat, an overcoat loose over his shoulders, and a large plastic bottle of something that looks like Pepsi but is probably beer. His dogs release us. We’re out of here.

Trailcams 1, 2, 3 – we ascend the ridge, and grab them. The good news is that one caught a fleeting glimpse of a forest wildcat carrying reptilian prey. We also have a rather cute fox.

Snapshot_0

The bad news is Trailcam 4. A chain dangles sadly from where the camera used to be. It’s now in a poacher’s pocket.

With the surviving cameras and low spirits, we walk on through the wood, trying to find a route home away from the dog pack. With the utmost difficulty, we crawl through dense prickling hawthorn, only to find ourselves dangerously close to the notorious farm with the red roofed barns.

Red roof farm

New problem: cows litter the landscape. Even at four hundred metres, another pack of giant dogs spot us, and come charging, bounding into hedgerows, closer, ever closer. Baskerville would be proud. One – something like a long-haired Anatolian – closes the gap to perhaps 60 metres, barking, barking, barking…

Scratched, exhausted and overheated, we stumble back into camp. Our local friends are horrified to hear that Trailcam 4 has been taken and with an energy that would leave the CID in the dust, they vow to track down the culprit. But there’s nothing more I can do.

Roll on Malancrav. That will be all. :/

Brothers: The Horse Meadow Foxes

I live on a boundary-line unknown to human diplomats: the frontier of two wildly different fox families runs straight through my back garden.

To the north live the Across the Road group. They are maverick, street-smart survivors who have had to navigate not only a dangerous main road but also serious habitat loss.

The Horse Meadows Group come from the south. Bold, curious and enduring, they are headed up by this chap, a one-eyed fox known locally as Nelson. I have always called him ‘One-Eye’.

Fox One-Eye sunshine 5 Nov 2017

Like all foxes, he has a terrible weakness for sunshine. Even a bit of brightness in November sends him sunbathing.

Fox One-Eye sleeping 5 Nov 2017

The Horse Meadow vixens include ‘Pretty Face’, another well-known fox who has given me some of my favourite photography moments – and cubs some of their favourite games. She is the perfect auntie.

Fox HMG cubs16 26 May 2017

Fox HMG cubs11 26 May 2017

Unlike One-Eye, she rarely visits the garden, although she did surprise me last week.

Fox Pretty Face 12 Nov 2017

One-Eye’s family have carved out a lofty niche for themselves. Their territory includes dozens of gardens, parts of three roads and, of course, the horse paddocks that give this group their name.

Foxes6 with magpie 180715

I often find them relaxing near the horses on sunny days, but I’ve also met them during the snow. And then they show the world how to play!

foxes snow7 210215

foxes snow12 210215

The Horse Meadows Group have a pretty easy life. Yes, intruding foxes are always a hazard, but they defend their territory with gusto – I’ve witnessed some jaw-dropping confrontations. They thrive upon years of knowledge of their land: safe footpaths and good hunting grounds, dry corners for shelter. A fox who has settled down, so to speak, is often very wise.

But there are other ways to make a living.

This is Spectacles. I’m certain he’s One-Eye’s brother. They materialised in my parish together about three years ago, distinctive from the outset in their dark russet hues across their flanks.

Fox Spectacles 160827

For a while, they were inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other.

That friendship never seemed likely to last. There is normally only one breeding male per group, and fights can be fierce. One-Eye took the Horse Meadows territory, Spectacles strayed. He is a transient – a homeless wanderer. Many young male foxes fall into the vagabond life, travelling fast as they hunt through the landscape to find a mate and territory of their own.

Spectacles is one of the few whose progress I have been able to monitor, and he has surprised me. We imagine dispersal as a straight line, but Spectacles has indulged in something entirely different. He leaves, then re-appears in the garden, lingering by the pond like a handsome black-footed ghost – and vanishes again, typically for months at a time.

Where does he go? The next village? The next hill? Or even across the human boundary into Kent?

Fox Intruder 170122

Without putting a GPS collar on him, it’s hard to be sure. He did loiter in the Across the Road group’s territory for a while last year, but that, too, did not last. The current breeding vixen of that group is extremely hostile to intruders, and you can hear the sound effects from one of her quarrels with Spectacles here.

So, he’s currently on the road again, travelling.

Does he know what he is looking for, or is he simply the prisoner of an instinct that compels him to roam?

I wish it was possible to ask him.

Settling in

“Home’s not merely four square walls,
Though with pictures hung and gilded…” – Charles Swain

Perhaps not, but fox photographs and a new banner do help a blog feel more homely.

Fox One Eye 6 Oct 2017

One-Eye is the dominant male of the Horse Meadows Group. This large fox family calls a sizable part of my parish their territory. His eye injury is at least two years old and doesn’t seem to affect him.

This blog is still an infant – under a month old – but, like all children, it is hungry for stories. Everywhere I tread, from woodlands splashed with gold at sunset to chalky hills cradling sleepy flowers, offers its own scripts. At the same time, I have to introduce this blog to its ancestry: journeys through truly wild lands that consumed so many posts on Opera.

I will move some of my old travelogues here and store them under their own pages, hopefully to be joined by my more recent adventures as time permits. First up: Gujarat in northwest India. Here’s a little nostalgia – a post from Velavadar National Park, which I visited on 26th November 2012.

___

Originally posted on Opera on 11th December 2012

Dust is a canvas. I’ve left the car to explore the edge of a little lake, human-dug, I think, to provide seasonal water for the park’s wildlife. Blackbuck appear in fragments through the long grass but the dust is more exciting for me. Written in it are the tear-drop tracks of a wild cat, the first I’ve found on this trip. They’re not huge – about fox size – and I think they are the insignia of a jungle cat Felis chaus. I just have an inkling…I scan the bushes, and I scan the grass.

There is nothing.

Back to the car, then, and back on the quest for the hyena, and back past wildlife that would monopolise my attention anywhere in Europe, but is so common here that it hardly wins a second glance.

Montagu’s harrier

Pallid harrier

The hyena isn’t being cooperative; down we head towards the little lake again, and there – a cat! A jungle cat, a big male cat, fox-red, greyhound-sleek, bounding across the road. He stops, for a fraction for a second, and stares back through the grass, and then melts away as if he had never been. I suspect that I was within metres of him at the lake, and saw nothing. Cats…

Half an hour passes. And then, incredulously, another jungle cat materialises. It’s not adult size, and not quite as stealthy as its peers. Apart from the trailcam’s capture of the bobcat last spring, it’s the first time I’ve ever caught a wild cat on my own camera.

The cat family is comprised of around 36 members, most of which are quite small and very poorly known. Jungle cats are about a third larger than domestic cats, and enliven wild areas from Egypt to China. This one doesn’t stay in view for long, but still – a wild cat!

We drive onwards. And then someone else appears on the road.

Striped hyenas are a rare example of a wild species whose appearance lives up to its name!

This hyena is much less social than its spotted African cousin. I’m curious at its gait; it waddles, almost, rather than walks. The hyena, for its part, is more curious in the local scents.

It might be merely wandering, rather than hunting; the nilgai do not seem to be concerned.

The sinking sun catches its ruff.

And that, by any standards, makes for a successful safari. The day is over: the flamingos mark the sunset.

But something more is there – the Indian subspecies of the animal that has compelled me to travel the world from Vancouver Island to Madhya Pradesh. What it is to look into the face of a wild wolf – those are the moments that no wildlife photographer can ever forget.

The light is terrible, and the wolves do not tarry. They lope across the track and stride back into the heart of Velavadar.

Tomorrow our path turns southwards towards Gujarat’s most famous park. I will remember Velavadar as a good place. It is the home of wolves.