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.

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.