The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 21.3.18

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Seconds out! Round one! The annual boxing match is well underway as brown hares assemble - as is the tradition in the month of March - to indulge in the preliminaries to the breeding season. This is, of course, the time for Mad March Hares! And, it is a time when Jack and Jill did not so much go up the hill to fetch a pail of water so much as to decide instead to get down to the business of courtship. And that means boxing!

Jack hares indulge in little competitive scraps, which include some sparring, but the main pugilists are the female Jills. A Jill may be pursued vigorously by a number of competing Jacks but she will resist any attempt to mate with her until she knows she is ready. Then, and only then, will she submit. Meanwhile, the Jacks leap, sometimes over each other, in their excitement.

Until she is in a condition to drop her guard, the real boxing begins as each Jill takes on the persona of Nicola Adams and firmly repels the advances of the most dominant Jacks by giving them a lesson in the pugilistic arts. And this, believe me, is just round one, for as the year passes, hares will not mate just once but several times - three or four at least. Thus, a Jill hare may have as many as four litters in a single year. However, these initial, frenzied bouts of courtship seem heightened as spring fitfully advances and with little in the way of vegetation to give them cover and perhaps with the urge to procreate at its peak, their madness is now fully revealed.

Over the decades it has been my privilege to live in this airt, I have seen incredible changes in the local hare population. It has gone from a time when I could scarcely look out of my kitchen window and not see a hare lolloping past, to periods when hares seemed almost to have disappeared altogether. Indeed, I well remember local hare shoots in which there were so many guns going off that it sounded as if the third world war had started. It was a wonder that no one was killed and the poor old hares had to run a pretty chastening gauntlet!

Now thankfully, after a period in which hares had become real rarities, there seems to be a slowly rising population of the lowland-living brown hare hereabouts. Yet the fact is that hares have always found themselves high on the list of targets for I guess that down the centuries, folk wielding spears, bows and arrows and latterly, guns, not to mention those who used to hunt hares with dogs, all viewed hares as 'fair game'.

Indeed, the hare has always been regarded as one of our 'big five' quarries along with the hind, the hart, the boar and the wolf. The wolf is gone, although there are those who would like it restored and the wild boar was also exterminated, albeit that there is now in Britain a substantial population of them again thanks to escapees from 'wild boar farms' and from estates where they have been introduced for sport.

Judging by the work of some of mankind's earlies artists, whilst clearly seen as a source of food and pelts and therefore being a regular target for the huntsman, the hare seemingly also commanded deep respect because of its supreme field-craft. In Grecian, Iranian and African folklore, it is regarded as more astute and cunning than even the fox! And the hare is actually the 'Brer Rabbit' of American folklore, its reputation travelling to America with the slaves transported from West Africa.

Hares assimilate and accumulate an intimate knowledge of their territory in such detail that they know every possible escape route such as the whereabouts of gaps or holes in hedgerows and fences which afford them the opportunity to evade any pursuing predator.

For the most part, hares tend to lie up during daylight hours, huddled up in the 'forms' - shallow depressions that they create - in which circumstances they often resemble molehills. If disturbed after sitting tight, a hare may emerge to show itself, initially without undue haste or alarm. However, when pursued, say by a dog, the animal will soon stretch its legs impressively. It is also capable of 'turning on a sixpence', changing direction abruptly, leaving a pursue baffled and straining to halt and then adjust to its headlong charge.

It is my understanding that the brown hare populated these islands before the last Great Ice Age but probably retreated to Continental Europe as the ice spread to cover much of Britain. When Britain became an island as the ice melted and sea levels rose, the opportunity for them to return was denied them. Thus, the only true native hare in Britain is said to be the mountain variety, often referred to as the 'blue hare'.

However, the writings of Julius Caesar around 54BC, tell us that brown hares were kept as pets by the Britons, residing in enclosures called leporaria and looked after by keepers who could summon them by blowing special horns! It may be presumed that these captive hares might be the ancestors of our current hare population for there is little doubt that such enclosures would not be entirely hare-proof and not too difficult to escape from. The remains of high-walled hare enclosures dating from Tudor times have also been discovered.

Yet despite the respect accorded to hares by our ancient ancestors, another tradition encouraged the hunting of hares because they were alleged to be witches which it was believed, could transmogrify themselves into hares. Apart from the speed a hare is able to generate, with its eyes set on the sides of its head to give it virtually an around the compass field of vision, it is also exceptionally well equipped to spot potential predators. However, old time poachers detected a weakness in a hare's vision which suggested that whilst it can see behind and to the side, its vision straight ahead is not so good. To catch a hare then, the advice was to approach it from the front!

However, courting Jack hares seem to be able to see forward well enough as they pursue the apple of their eye, a Jill. Indeed such is their fixation that you may, at this time of the year, see several of them following in the wake of such a Jill. At times it seems they are accordingly completely oblivious to any human presence, all utterly dedicated and entirely focussed on an eventual outcome, which it is likely, only one of them may enjoy!

Spring fever at last and not before time!

Country View 22.2.18

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Down the centuries, the impact of successive generations of people on our landscape has been enormous. Once, much of Britain was covered in woodland and heath but the advancement of agriculture saw a massive transformation down the ages. Woodland was cleared and turned into productive land, heathland was drained and improved and some might say that slowly, as the ambitions of those who strove to make a living from the land grew, our landscape as a consequence, was tamed.

And naturally as those changes took place, so wildlife had to adapt, move on or simply cease to exist. As the machinery of the farming industry has become more and more sophisticated, such changes can clearly be made at a much faster rate these days. Indeed, in many instances, machinery has replaced manpower. Farming today clearly employs far fewer people than once was the case, as witness the selling off of farm cottages originally built to house levels of labour no longer required.

The merging of farms into bigger units has also made many farm buildings redundant and in recent times we have seen many of them converted into modern living space. And whilst some might argue that such developments mark the further advancement and rationalisation of the farming industry, there is nevertheless a knock-on effect on wildlife. I remember only too well, when a neighbouring farm was a splendid place at which to watch barn owls but where those owls once nested in what was then a barn, now instead there are human occupants!

Not surprisingly perhaps, we nowadays seldom see these beautiful owls making their almost ghostly progress as they scour the surrounding fields for rodents. I used to watch barn owls frequently quartering nearby rough grazing ground and indeed, in those self same acres, I could also expect to see short-eared owls, snipe - in the spring, drumming - and skylarks soaring and of course singing their breathless anthems.

Those lowland acres were then ploughed and planted to become a relatively sterile conifer forest. Admittedly, deer now prosper in it, especially red deer which have seized the opportunity to vacate the nearby hills - also now covered in spruce trees - to re-colonise the kind of habitat their ancestors once originally enjoyed living in - lowland woodland. However, the aforementioned owls, snipe or skylarks are no longer there!

I suspect that the planting of those previously delightfully unkempt acres might not happen today for when they were planted nearly forty years ago, there seemed to be less concern for the impact such a transformation might have on all that wonderful wildlife. These days, there is perhaps much more recognition of the responsibility we have for our diminishing wildlife but ironically, it also seems likely that this particular forest may never be felled!

The Scottish Government plans to increase the future level of forestry, which in its own way will further change the distribution of wildlife wherever the next generation of trees is planted. I remember some forty years ago that our local hills sustained no fewer than seven pairs of hen harriers but as more planting occurred they disappeared. There was also a healthy population of short-eared owls - they were easier to spot than the barn owls for they are diurnal hunters and therefore as such, very different from most other owls. But they too are gone.

However, conifer forests are not entirely sterile. They provide ideal habitat for several interesting animals and birds. Red squirrels find spruce forests very much to their liking and hereabouts their population has soared, thanks to the increasing presence of another mammal, which also prospers among the conifers, the pine marten. The new generation of martens have decimated the local grey squirrel population, perhaps because not only are the alien greys less agile than the smaller, native red squirrel but they are, as a result, easier to catch. Red squirrels have accordingly filled the vacuum.

Those unique birds, crossbills also find conifer forest very much to their liking as do the minuscule goldcrests - our smallest native bird. And of course, in recent years there has been a substantial increase in the population of another of those wee birds which, as March approaches, become more and more familiar in our gardens. During the past few days, I have been seeing a few of these delightful, colourful and feisty little birds, the siskins. And during these next few weeks, I expect their presence will become more and more evident.

I recently re-read a wee book published in the early twentieth century, "Familiar Wild Birds", written by a gentleman by the name of Swaysland. The siskin is named as a rare bird, which was, late in the nineteenth century, a popular cage bird. Indeed, the presence of siskins in the London area, it was suggested, might have been due to the presence of escaped cage birds, initially imported from Germany. It was further presumed that some siskins could possibly have crossed the North Sea, again from Germany, in which country migrants from Scandinavia regularly winter.

Otherwise, the author suggested, they might have come from Scotland where there were a few known breeding populations. There can be little doubt that the spread of coniferous forest here in Scotland, during the twentieth century, has enabled the siskin population to go forth and multiply. Indeed, it may be that in the past their numbers here have been augmented by migrants from Scandinavia. This likelihood provides further proof that birds, with their ability to translocate over distance, will go where the most beneficial conditions prevail.

These tiny birds are very attractive, the males fairly glowing with their lemony-green plumage and adorned by a striking black cap, which extends below the chin to a wee bib. Surprisingly, research has proved that the larger that bib, the more dominant is that bird's status in the siskin community. Siskins are extremely sociable birds, nesting in the conifers in colonies and clearly establishing a social order. As the spring advances, you may see cock birds offering food to females and even to other males.

In itself, the exchange of food between males clearly illustrates exactly how dominant the recipients of such gifts are within that community. Those proffering gifts are clearly subordinate birds. However, males feeding females is entirely different and a ploy designed as you might guess, to strengthen a bond. As the breeding season hots up, it may also be a means of persuading the females to concentrate on the production of the next generation rather than wasting energy on foraging.

The arrival of siskins in gardens as March approaches is likely to be because they have nearly exhausted natural supplies of seeds, particularly those of alder but also including birch, spruce and the seeds of weeds such as docks and burdock. Thus, our provision of various varieties of seeds fills a gap in the siskin diet. The brightest flashes of colour are provided by the male siskins - the females lack the black crown and bib, their plumage is more streaked and thus they are not quite as bright. They are really agile wee birds and are not readily bullied by the likes of greenfinches and chaffinches. As said they are feisty!

Green suddenly seems to be the theme for having seen no greenfinches here over the course of the last couple of years, I have recently observed a handful of them on my bird-table. But it is the siskins that really catch the eye, their yellow barred wings flashing in the winter - or could it be spring sunshine? Spring, despite the continuing presence of low temperatures, is definitely moving in!

Country View 17.1.18

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Scotland's colourful history provides us with many connections with other nations in the world. The 'Auld Alliance' with France springs to mind, an alliance, which, during those all too frequent periods in our history when English monarchs coveted Scotland as part of their realms, Scotland perhaps felt particularly vulnerable. In theory at least, a French presence across the Channel perhaps gave us some sort of insurance. With the French always having a rather shaky relationship with the English, English forces had accordingly to be posted along the south coast. In reality, that took some of the pressure off Scotland!

Such protection however, always seemed to be somewhat fragile to say the least! Our strongest overseas connections nowadays are perhaps with the New World countries of America and Canada - simply because so many Scots were among the pioneering founding fathers of those two nations. Judging by the number of tourists who descend upon us from 'across the pond' each year, those ties remain strong. Americans and Canadians frequently express great pride about their links with Scotland.

However, it is to the north and east we should perhaps look more intensely, for among our strongest historic links are surely those with Scandinavia, once perhaps regarded as the source of much grief during the long years of Viking raids upon Scottish shores. Mind you, for those VIkings the world seems to have been their oyster - they landed in many locations in these islands and indeed established settlements here and much farther afield too. But there are many traces of Viking presence all over the British Isles. Place names with Norse influences abound not to mention the number of red-headed folk to be found in certain parts of Britain, perhaps a very strong testament of a long term Viking heritage!

It was the sight of a rabble of 'Viking invaders' making their way noisily over local fields that began this train of thought. A mixed flock of fieldfares and redwings typically hurtling through the air, with the usual accompaniment of much loud 'chacking', indeed seemed a manifestation of a modern day Viking invasion. Of these Scandinavian thrushes, the larger fieldfares are comparable in both size and nature with our mistle thrushes but with grey heads and grey rumps, whilst the smaller redwings are about the same size as our song thrushes. Redwings are well named as they display bright red flashes on and under their wings. Along with their frequent companions, the fieldfares, they always seem hungry and always to be in a hurry!

These Scandinavian thrushes are notorious when they arrive on these shores, usually in October, for stripping any remaining berries from our shrubs and trees not previously taken by our sedentary blackbirds, thrushes and starlings. The aforementioned berry gobblers certainly ensured that those Viking invaders won't arrive here on my rowans, for by September there was not a berry to be seen! However, the fieldfares and redwings are also frequently to be seen feasting on invertebrates in surrounding fields. I suspect further south, perhaps to places where the Mediterranean laps on warmer shores but then those same shores were also to be investigated by the early human Vikings too! They certainly put themselves about those Norsemen and are said to have made landfall in North America long before Christopher Columbus got there!

However, although these avian invaders may be the most evident and obvious visitors from Scandinavia (some come from Russia too!), there are many other migratory birds from that quarter, which probably go largely unnoticed simply because they are indistinguishable from their British based counterparts. You might for instance be surprised to learn that large numbers of moorhen from Scandinavia augment our winter population of these familiar water birds. And how for instance, can you tell the difference between a goldcrest that has incredibly flown here all the way from the perilous North Sea and a British resident goldcrest? They are identical, so who knows what the origins be of any goldcrests you should spot?

Goldcrests seem to me to be the most unlikely migrants, simply because they are so minuscule. It might be thought thtey would be too fragile to undertake such a journey but they do ... in their thousands. Old folklore suggests that goldcrests actually hitched rides on the backs of migrant woodcock - an unlikely story but one which once gave the goldcrests the name, 'woodcock pilots'. This story possibly gained some credibility from the confirmed fact that woodcock sometimes remove their own young from their territories by carrying them in their feet!

Goldcrests of course, are natives of our coniferous woodlands, as are those curious birds, crossbills. Periodically, should the Scandinavian cone crop fail, crossbills, which feed exclusively off conifer seeds, also make that North Sea crossing, although only very occasionally. However, our native population of crossbills may in part owe its origins to such migrations. Another winter visitor to look for is of course the exotic looking waxwing. We are visited by waxwings most winters but periodically they come in surprisingly high numbers - known as irruptions - usually when the Scandinavian berry crop fails. These colourful birds do not hide their lights under bushels and may often be seen openly feasting off the berries of various decorative berry-bearing shrubs planted in our parks and gardens.

And you may during these winter months, become familiar with goldeneye on many of our lochs. These are wild duck, rather chunky birds with quite blocky heads. The drakes, largely black with a green sheen and white - dark on the upper parts but white at the waterline - are readily recognised by the two prominent white cheek patches on the dark head. Their eyes are notably golden. The duck is largely grey with a brown head and does not have cheek patches. As spring slowly advances, the drakes may be seen displaying to the duck by throwing back their heads, raising their tails and kicking up water prior to their departure and subsequent courtship in their native Scandinavian heath.

Only rarely have goldeneye been recorded nesting in Britain but in their native Scandinavia, they willingly use nest boxes in trees. Indeed, the Laplanders have been encouraging them to nest in such boxes for many, many years now. In order to procure their eggs! I often see goldeneye on our local loch during the winter months. They are currently sharing those waters with a couple of dozen whooper swans, which of course, come from Iceland rather than from Scandinavia.

There are many other Scandinavian in-comers, perhaps the most unusual, being the short-eared owls, a bird I am used to seeing hunting on our open moorlands and in young, newly planted conifer forest. They are unusual in that, unlike other owls, they are very much daytime hunters quartering low over that moorland on exceptionally long wings, ready to drop like a stone on to an unsuspecting vole. It seems likely that most of the migrant short-ears may largely confine themselves to coastal areas such as salt marshes rather than resorting to the higher places.

It is strange how some birds can look particularly menacing, even when merely sitting on fence-posts as short-ears are often wont to do. But short-eared owls, with their exceptionally piercing, simmering yellow eyes, leave the observer in no doubt that they are predators - very determined hunters and merciless killers of voles, whether they come from Scotland or from Scandinavia. Perhaps they are a true manifestation of those ancient Vikings?

Country View 10.1.18

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A New Year and new dawns which, little by little, are coming that bit earlier each morning. The year, the worm has turned and although there may be plenty of winter weather to come, like us, some birds are already looking ahead to spring. Ringing out loud and clear, echoing across a white frost adorned winter landscape, a sole great tit is acknowledging that forthcoming transition. His voice, as he 'saws' away, drifts across the frozen fields, the two-syllable declaration sending a clear, unequivocal message to any eligible female great tits that may be listening - "I'm available ... !" The fact that the temperature is currently lingering below zero does not it seems, discourage him.

On a day of wall-to-wall blue sky reflected in an equally azure tinted loch surface now entirely covered by ice, which incidentally is already thick enough to bear the weight of hundreds of roosting geese, there is a distinct irony about this lone vocalist's message. It is, after all, early January! However, it is clear that today's low temperatures do not necessarily have an influence on his desire to begin the preliminaries of an as yet seemingly distant breeding season.

So what has triggered this sudden burst of enthusiasm? Gradually lengthening hours of daylight must be the key. 'Let there be light' ... and there will be a response. A cloudless sky, which of course, is a prelude to an ice ridden night, nevertheless extends the hours of daylight that little bit further, the hours of daylight.

And of course, the male great tit is always one to jump on to the bandwagon of opportunity to get into 'breeding season mode' at the earliest possible juncture if only to put down a marker! This particular fellow - the first I have heard this winter - having entered the spirit of things early, will without doubt, be in it for the long haul. He may well find that his early start will stimulate others to join the chorus. Such precocity does turn female heads and may well give him a head start.

However, as the season progresses, whilst his vocal prowess will tick boxes, he probably knows that there is indeed a long time to go before he is likely to fulfil his dreams. Indeed, there will also be much vigorous competition to ward off before he may expect to settle with a female, once she becomes the apple of his eye - or rather, he of hers! Even then, he cannot be sure of conquest. Female great tits are extremely demanding and brook no failures in their mates.

As a part of his courtship ritual, he will establish a territory in which, ultimately he must hope, he will induce a female to settle and nest with him. But even at that unreasonably advanced stage of their relationship, he cannot be sure that she will ultimately throw in her lot with him. She will need to be fully satisfied that the territory he commands is right for the vital job of raising a healthy family. Thus it must, as a matter of course, yield plenty of food gathering opportunities for the family when it finally comes along. And it must of course, include several good potential nest sites.

In assessing a territory's food potential, great tits must have a keen awareness of what moth activity, in particular, there is going on within the chosen patch. When eventually a family of little great tits hatches, it will require a supply of caterpillars, small to begin with and later larger to sustain them. That is where the moths come in! This vital supply and the great tits' ability to register exactly when the moths too are in breeding mode is clearly a crucial factor. Furthermore, should the chosen territory disappoint and fail to produce sufficient food, the poor old male may well find himself whistling to himself! Such a perceived food shortfall is likely to prompt his prospective mate to immediately seek a divorce and depart to find another mate who commands a more fully provisioned patch.

There is no sentiment about it, this is pragmatic decision making on the wing. It will not matter how well and vigorously a male great tit may sing. It will not matter how handsome he looks with his black chest band dominating his otherwise colourful plumage. If he doesn't command a territory that will provide for the family that the pair may hope to produce later in the spring, his cause is lost! As ever, such choice is ultimately made by the female. Repeating the bald fact that there is no sentiment involved, she, as the season advances, has but one aim ... to produce the next generation of great tits! Her choice of partner is entirely made on pragmatic grounds.

With so many different factors at play, it is clear that great tits must therefore be particularly astute and observant if they are to eventually succeed in rearing a new generation of their kind when spring finally takes over from winter. In essence, great tits are birds of woodland. However, as more households have taken to feeding wild birds on a regular basis, this is a bird that has adapted particularly well to the garden environment. In spring, it is very much an insectivore. It feeds its young exclusively on the said caterpillars, yet for the rest of the year it survives largely on the likes of seeds and nuts, some obtained from bird-tables, the rest from the woodland floor, where it is a constant and colourful presence.

Great tits, of course, take well to nest boxes and with the number of gizmos now widely available, many pairs and their youngsters now 'star' in the home-made movie business, their every move captured on film and relayed to the household occupants. However, in their more natural woodland habitat, they do broaden their diet to include a number of rather unexpected items. For instance, they occasionally prey on the young of other birds. They have also sometimes been seen feeding on small lizards and frogs but most surprisingly perhaps, they have been observed raiding bat roosts, with the tiny pipistrelle the main victim.

Great tits themselves, of course, often fall victim to sparrowhawks and whereas it might be thought that larger, more virile looking males might seem to be the most likely to attract females, in reality, smaller, more agile birds actually come out on top. The larger birds are apparently much more likely to be picked off by hawks. As a general rule, great tits have only one brood of youngsters each year, albeit that that brood may contain as many as a dozen young!

With winter maintaining its grip on the landscape, all that is very much in the future. Today's bold vocal statement is but a prelude to the excitement that will be generated as eventually winter surrenders to advancing spring and the competition really begins to hot up. However, it does seem to be a particularly early kick-off for one cock great tit, that's for sure.

Country View 5.1.18

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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!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods