Already, in early April there is new life. For most creatures, spring is generally the time when serious preparations are being laid for the real season of re-birth, summer. So spring is a time when terriotories are mapped out, pairings sought and established and when the sound of music confirms the spirit of true romance. All these emotions are by now, done and dusted as far as foxes are concerned. They are remarkably quick off the mark. Already there are cubs being lovingly suckled by their mothers. These new arrivals are however, as yet unseen, still safely tucked away in their underground nurseries.
In these more northerly latitudes, fox cubs are usually born during the month of March following a fifty-two day gestation. Courtship happens during early January - sooner in the south - when the blood curdling screams of the vixens, act as a signal to dog foxes that the time for coupling is right. However, in 'normal' circumstances, a dog fox may well have a cohort of three or four vixens in his territory and he will usually only couple with one of them, a choice between those vixens, the dominant one becoming his mate for the year.
Mind you, those screams, when heard at close quarters, can be a mighty shock to the human nervous system. I have personal experience of this when once walking my dog across fields one foggy, wintry night. Suddenly from the murk behind me, I heard an unknown creature's feet crunching in the frosted grass before it shattered the night's otherwise muffled silence, with a nerve jangling scream. It was clearly a vixen! There followed more sounds of crunching feet as the perpetrator circled me and my dog, pausing every now and again to utter than unearthly scream again and again and again. The hairs on the back of my neck were tingling; my dog resembled a stiff brush, the fur on her back utterly erect! It was somehow an unearthly experience but neither of us saw a single hair of her. The torch I wielded illumnated nothing but grey walls of fog.
The colonisation by foxes, of suburban and indeed, ubran areas, has however, made foxes much more visible and consequently when the breeding season comes along, more audible too. Ironically, if you live in city suburbs these days, you are much more likely to enjoy close encounters of a furred kind with these now extremely familiar residents than those of us who live in the countryside. I'm sure that there will have been many occasions when folk returning in the evening from work, will have jumped out of their skin in response to a vixen's blood curdling scream issuing perhaps from a darkened garden.
During occasional visits to suburbia I have watched foxes, strolling nonchalantly along pavements, picking their way along fence tops - with all the balance of a feline - sunbathing on shed roofs and even knocking on the French windows of houses with their forepaws, in the hope of a free meal. I have heard many accounts of foxes setting up home and producing litters of cubs, under garden sheds. Urban based foxes mind you, learn to exist on a diet of human cast offs - scraps and the contents of waste bins - albeit that they do sometimes repay their human neighbours by killing unwanted rats.
Yet elsewhere, in rural landscapes, foxes have always been, in some people's minds, public enemy number one. Indeed, foxes have been chased, hunted, shot, snared, trapped and poisoned mercilessly down the years. Yet, if there is a creature which deserves the accolade of the 'great survivor' then surely that creature is the fox, known by Scots as Tod; the Reynard of much children's literature and also of course, across the pond, the famous Brer Fox!
Yet despite such unparalleled persecution, there are probably more foxes in our landscape now than ever before. It is an incontrovertible fact that the harder people are on foxes, the more they are harassed and pursued, the more they respond by increasing their rate of breeding. Dog foxes in such extreme cirtucmstances are likely to throw aside their singular mating habits and instead of mating with just one vixen, mate with two or more! One hill farmer of my acquaintance, will not have a fox pursued or killed on his land, as he firmly believes that a stable population of foxes will do him less harm than a constantly harassed one!
Those new arrivals, even now crawling about the cloying darkness of their earths, are not necessarily however, very fox-like. It is usually around ten days before their eyes open and they may have reached the ripe-old age of four weeks before they experience the great outdoors for the first time. Initially, they are born with a covering of usually dark brown fur, albeit that sometimes they are black and sometimes almost golden, with quite short, stubby tails. It is good many years ago since my family and I found ourselves fostering such a cub called Sithean. This too was a real survivor for her den had been the subject of an assault by terriers. All her siblings had fallen victim but somehow, she had survived and had, at a few days old, found her way to the earth's entrance.
Human nature is a multi-faceted and complex characteristic, for it was the very keeper who had put the terriers in to the fox's den in the first place who discovered this still blind waif and stray and who initially took her into care! However, he very quickly passed the fox and the responsibility of rearing her to me. It was not, as it happened, the first time such a responsibility has landed on my doorstep.
Although at first she lived freely in our house, such long-term residence is not to be recommended. In general foxes do not make good pets. Sithean, however, was very different, loved communing with our dogs - she was enthusiastically mothered by our borzoi Anna, with whom she played ceaselessly - and liked nothing more than a good rub of her tummy rolling on her back any time we approached. At first, she was a sightless, brown little waif but it was not long before her coat turned 'red' and she looked like a proper little fox.
Some folk would have you believe that wild foxes eat nothing but hens, lambs and pheasants. Whilst there is no doubt that if hens are not shut up at night, they may well form part of your local fox's diet; as the late David Stephen once said to me, "I never knew of a fox that carried a key to the hen-house!" Foxes however, eat a surprising number of worms, rats and small rodents such as mice and voles. Indeed, in a good vole year - which this one looks like being - voles may well be the fox's staple diet!
I am certain that the often blind and thoughtless persecution of foxes is vastly overdone and seemingly counter productive. And with the introduction of fifty million pheasants to the British landscape each and every year, as far as the foxes - not to mention a few other birds and animals - are concerned, it must seem to them like a generous bonanza of free food! After all they don't know that those pheasants are there to be shot!