Last weekend, it was a winter's tale with snow - a few inches of it - ice, which literally seizes the land in its grip - and at times, mist verging on fog. And, as Donald Trump said about the snow currently pelting America's east, "What happened to global warming!" It was in some parts, a 'White Christmas' but not quite here. But how quickly things changed with some chaos on the roads and all too many flights cancelled as snow also enveloped various airports. Ours was a post white Christmas!
You could think, 'not a good time for wildlife', yet as might be expected, traffic at my bird-table was heavy. The birds certainly weren't grounded! In fact, snowfall is very revealing. It is easy to see exactly what animals are around by means of their tracks in the snow. The day before Hogmanay for instance, I saw a straight line of diamond-like prints. I knew that Tod was about! And there he or she was slipping under the fence of my paddock, across it and under the fence at the other side on into our neighbouring farmer's field. I was relieved that it didn't head towards us, for my motley flock of hens was out in the garden.
The sheep stopped, taking an inquisitive break from grazing and stood stock still, watching every step the fox took. Whilst the fox is not a danger to these adult sheep, foxes and sheep are nevertheless sworn enemies, conflict between them coming of course particularly at lambing time.
Foxes are also unpopular with gamekeepers. With pheasants being as popular at mealtimes - which to foxes can be anytime - as turkey is to us on Christmas Day, not surprisingly to most gamekeepers, Tod is regarded as public enemy number one. Actually a fox's diet is surprisingly varied and does not, as some would have it, consist merely of lambs and pheasants. Mind you, with an approximate 50 million pheasant released into the British countryside however, who can blame foxes for seeing the said pheasants as we might look through the food shelves of a supermarket - food a plenty!
But foxes also eat vast quantities of worms and other invertebrates, a source of feeding largely denied to them with the snow lying. There used to be plenty of rabbits here but in recent years they have become as rare as hen's teeth so that is another source of food that is missing. However, there are plenty of small rodents to keep the foxes busy, voles especially being pretty universally distributed.
I well remember a keeper in this part of Scotland bemoaning the arrival of myxomatosis. He complained that with rabbits gone, the local foxes would seek an alternative source of food - his pheasants! Sheep farmers of course, complain of fox predation on their lambs, especially those of them that farm the bleak Highlands and Uplands. However, lambs are only vulnerable in their early days. Thus the window of opportunity for foxes is short.
I acknowledge that foxes do sometimes kill lambs but I suspect that many of the lambs foxes take, especially on hill farms, are either dead or on the way to oblivion. Of course, these are easy pickings and with mortality among hill lambs notoriously high, especially after severe winters, for a short time the hill foxes make merry. The vogue for slaughtering foxes at every opportunity however, is not necessarily a good way of keeping numbers down.
Foxes are often regarded as 'loners' yet a dog fox will command a territory, which in the wilder landscapes may extend over several square miles, compared for instance with urban foxes which clearly operate in much smaller areas. And within that territory he may have three or four vixens. As the breeding season approaches, the vixens vie to be 'top bitch' and it is the winner of that contest with which the dog fox will mate when the time comes.
That 'loner' view is further diminished by the fact that when the dominant vixen produces her cubs, the other vixens - often related - are very willing to act as 'nannies', sharing maternal duties with the mother. So, in fact, there is something akin to a social order and community. It is only when the group is put under pressure by those who would willingly cull them, that the dog fox is likely to mate with another of the vixens thus multiplying the number of cubs born to compensate as it were, for other losses. I certainly know one hill farmer who will not have foxes killed on his land for he claims that having a stable population of them, means the threat to his sheep - or lambs - is reduced.
And, as with many mammals, should you eliminate the local fox population altogether thus emptying a territory, it will quickly be re-occupied by other foxes seeking territory. It is a clear case of opportunism and in a sense, re-cycling! Indeed, it might well be the case that the harder you hit foxes, the more they will breed and when territories are emptied, that more groups of foxes may claim and share that territory, increasing rather than decreasing the local population.
The sight of that lone fox crossing my paddock in that snowy landscape, reminded me of a nerve-jangling encounter I once had with a vixen. It was a winter's night of freezing, thick fog. Nevertheless, I decided to take my dog for a walk in the adjacent field. We were blundering along, even with a torch only able to see a couple of yards or so. As I shone the torch, it was as if we were trapped within impenetrable grey walls - yet grey walls that sparkled with frost.
But suddenly both my dog and I were halted abruptly in our tracks. From just a few yards behind us came without warning, the most diabolical of screams. For reasons best known to the perpetrator of that unearthly noise, a vixen was following us. I then heard her footsteps in the frosted grass as she moved in an anti-clockwise direction around us until she was level with us whereupon she stopped and screamed again. She continued to circumnavigate us and each time she stopped she repeated that scream. I swept around with my torch only to once again be met by what passed for a solid wall of sparkling fog.
Then I heard the barking of a dog fox some distance away. Instantly the footsteps could be heard receding as she now set off to investigate what was undoubtedly something of much greater interest to her than we had been! As abruptly as she had announced herself, so she departed leaving my dog and I to contemplate an extraordinary few moments ... in total, foggy isolation. The screams were so unnerving that I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck bristling. When I turned my torch on my dog, she too had raised her hackles. It was such a close encounter - yet I did not see a single hair of that screaming vixen.
Foxes, despite widespread persecution, are increasing every year. Hunting them on horseback with packs of hounds - now of course illegal although as we read in the papers it still goes on - is without doubt the least effective way of controlling them. At times in the past foxes were imported from the Continent to make sure there would be quarries for the hounds and indeed I have had personal knowledge of Masters of Hounds hand rearing young foxes to keep the numbers on their patches up! It could be argued, perhaps, that foxes should largely be left unmolested. Their population might then stabilise. However, I doubt if keepers would agree - after all they have those 50 million pheasants to protect for the guns!