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

Singapore’s Wildside

March 2017

Singapore’s water is everywhere, even in the air – it batters you with humidity. Water is never far away as a walking companion either; Singapore is, after all, a small island with a large river. Walk by the coast, and you never know who you’ll meet.

Paradise tree snake1 SG 31 March 2017

Paradise tree snakes are famous for flying – they can glide 300 feet between trees – but this one was weaving its way along footpath railings. They are mildly venomous but do not really pose a risk.

You may look upwards to detect snakes, but the crash in the undergrowth signals something much bigger…

Malayan water monitor adult1 SG Mar 2017

Malayan water monitors are dragons of the sea: they can reach ten feet in length.

Oriental pied hornbills are giants of the feathered kind.

Oriental pied hornbill sg Mar 2017

Their massive bills are surprisingly dextrous in handling fruit.

Pied Hornbill2

They share the trees with smaller birds such as bulbuls.

Yellow vented bulbul SG Mar 2017

And tropical squirrels.

Squirrel SG Mar 2017

It’s so easy to forget that the city is just minutes away.


Silk Road of the Sea

There is a particular magic to the English autumn: it is the guest that dances into the party, rearranges the furniture, and spirits itself away before you can ask it any questions. Even now, as November approaches, there are still plenty of wild sights to see, but it also feels like a good time to sit back with a hot chocolate and reflect upon far away places.

Come back to springtime in south-east Asia…

SE Asia map

March 2017

Malacca: the strait where you take Asia’s pulse. It is a funnel, a pinch-point, a sulky vein of blue-grey water where the Pacific and Indian Oceans reach through the East’s jumbled islands to uneasily shake hands. The plane turns into final approach above it, clouds parting to reveal the golf course and crowded harbour of Singapore.

This most famously clean of cities sits poised like a hunting dragon on the Silk Road of the Sea. A quarter of the world’s traded goods travel through its claws and along the Strait of Malacca; oil and coffee may dominate now, but it was not so very long ago that Sir Stamford Raffles’ newborn town was brightened by the painted tongkang and twakow boats of lightermen, delivering spices, rubber, coral and palm heart to godowns upriver.

Trade has a habit of choking water and air. By the late 20th century, Singapore was an ecological wreck. As we all know, wrecked lands are quite common. What Singapore has become after vigorous campaigns at greening up is far more novel. Out of the jungle has grown a city threaded with trees.

Singapore Bugis

This is what a real ‘garden city’ looks like – everywhere that can be brightened with wild living things, is. And where there are trees and flowers, animals will follow.

Crab eating macaque3 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

Crab-eating macaques wander Singapore’s quieter streets.

Crab eating macaque5 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

Crab eating macaque2 Bukit Timah 17 March 2017

They are the boldest of the wild creatures here and endure the same conflict as urban wildlife in the West. Signs order people not to feed monkeys, but clearly some tourists still do.

SG park regs

Behind them is a corner of Singapore that few visitors to downtown can possibly imagine. Bukit Timah is tiger country, now sans tigers but with that throbbing, humid, complex air that characteristics tropical forests everywhere.

Bukit Timah Mar 2017

Where the great cats once left tear-shaped tracks, monstrous flowers now bloom. I think this is a batflower.

Giant flower SG Mar 2017

Other predators still lurk. Water monitors are one of the world’s largest lizards.

Malayan water monitor juv3 SG Mar 2017

Somewhere within Bukit Timah’s jungle, leopard cats and palm civets sleep. They are shy, but a waking cologu spies me. This strange creature is also known as a flying lemur although it is not one of that family. It can glide over 200 feet between trees.

Colugo Bukit Timah SG 170318

It is hot, humid-hot, and the paths are steep.

Bukit Timah path SG Mar 2017

A few miles away, the city continues its life, oblivious or accepting of so much nature next door.

Singapore riverside