Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 17.10.14

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"Let me out of here!" That seemed to be the demand when, several years ago, I was called to one of our local police stations to try and catch a fox which had been brought in by a passing motorist, apparently unconscious, having been hit by a car. It certainly was not comatoze by the time I arrived, for it had recovered consciousness and finding itself locked in a cell, was venting its displeasure in no uncertain terms. It clearly was not enjoying the experience! As far as I could tell, it was intact, with no permanent physical damage and no broken bones but judging by its reaction when I entered the cell, human beings (and presumably their conveyances) were definitely not its favourite things!

This apprehension was certainly clear during the ensuing forty minutes or so. In company with the resident police constable, by now rather concerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of his cell, which had been appropriately decorated by its incumbent, we endeavoured to take the said fox into and then out of custody. Eventually, we managed to apprehend the culprit and consign it to the ‘pet carrier’ but not without something of a struggle. I had taken the precaution of wearing a heavy pair of gauntlets but when at last I managed to get hold of the beast, he left his mark. Indeed, I still bear the mark – an indentation - on my hand where one of his lethal incisors got through the thick leather of the gauntlet.

I can have no complaints about this for the fox must have been utterly terrified to wake up from its mini coma and find itself in the confines of a police cell. It was literally, a fox with a sore head. And as we endeavoured to catch it, naturally it reacted to what it could only translate as aggression on our part. We knew we were trying to help the beast; the beast didn’t understand our concern for it and probably thought we were threatening its life and thus as might be expected, it defended itself, using every trick in the book to evade us and fighting back … with a vengeance!

The final act in this short lived drama was the easy bit as I drove out to the edge of the forest near which he had been found and quietly opened the box to release him. He departed at first like a bullet from a gun, ran up the hill into the forest before pausing for a moment, looking back and staring at me for a few moments, before finally making good his escape. Fancifully, as far as I was concerned, for a fleeting moment as he glanced back, he seemed to be signifying his thanks for giving him a second chance in life!

I am sure some readers may feel that we should have despatched the animal, for few creatures are quite so universally tarred with ‘the villain’s’ brush. Foxes in many minds are simply bad, just as a few hundred years ago in this airt, the wolf was the villain of the peace as I guess it still is in many other parts of the world. I read recently that wolves had been seen a mere forty miles from Paris, a fact that probably re-awakened in the minds of some citizens, thoughts of Mademoiselle Red Riding Hood for instance. And shepherds in several alpine parts of Europe, are voicing their concern about the predation on sheep by wolves, which they claim is becoming more and more commonplace.

Many things are said about foxes, not many of them complimentary, especially about the dangers they pose to lambs, poultry and of course, game birds, together with other ground nesting birds. Having lost geese, chickens and ducks at various times, losses for which the only explanation is predation by foxes, you might think I would have a somewhat jaundiced view of Tod. However, I take the view that if I insist on keeping free-range poultry, allowing my wee flock to wander at will, I can have no complaints about the odd one falling victim to foxes. For them, if they happen to be in the right place at the right time, this is simply food! Furthermore, I have a curiously benign view of these creatures, having down the years, reared a number of cubs thus, in the process, gaining some understanding of their nature.

One such fox stayed with us for the whole of her life, all thirteen years of it, and whilst I would never recommend foxes as pets, I can certainly testify to the very benign nature of that animal, albeit under very unusual circumstance. She came to us at three days old, having somehow survived an assault by terriers, which left all of her siblings dead but somehow, her unscathed but now orphaned. Ironically it was the very keeper whose terriers had despatched her siblings who gave her a second chance, finding her crawling blindly about the entrance to the earth that had been her nursery but then being unable to bring himself to kill her. He therefore took her home but reluctant to commit himself to the task of raising a fox cub, called me instead!

As much as my family jointly took on that task, so did one of my dogs play a significant part, nursing the said cub, cleaning it and playing with it. Throughout her life, that fox always maintained a very close relationship with our dogs. But she also established good relations with people, especially children and with a sheep-farming friend, hitherto hostile to foxes but on meeting our ‘tame’ fox, at first bemused and later charmed! On one occasion, having escaped from her run, she was to be seen standing alongside my hens, eating hen food and then later visited a neighbour’s garden in order to play with their dog! Not normal fox behaviour!

In my lifetime, more and more foxes have trans-located to urban situations, presumably because they find rich pickings in urban and suburban areas and where, despite the risks they run with regard to city traffic, there is perhaps easier living to be enjoyed and relative freedom from persecution. There are times, especially when the media is looking for stories to run, when horrendous tales are reported of foxes being found in houses usually to the horror and dread of the citizens therein. But let us put such rare incidents in perspective. Every day it seems there are incidents reported, in which domestic dogs attack people, especially children. You will not find ANY statistics in this respect relating to foxes!

Urban foxes in fact do not do a lot of killing, save for rats. They live on what our affluent society throws away! I suppose in that respect they might be seen to be doing a fair amount of good!

I certainly think that the almost manic pursuit of foxes in the countryside, is often irrational for I am quite convinced that the more persecution is aimed at them, the less effective it is. More likely is it that over zealous persecution has had the effect of moving foxes around and encouraging them to fill territories that have been emptied. It therefore fails in its primary objective of reducing the number of foxes over all. Indeed, it seems more likely that the opposite is the case. Despite a growing level of activity against them, fox populations just seem to keep rising both in town and in country! 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods