Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 3.8.16

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There is definitely something about the lazy, hazy days of August that transmits a kind of soporific lull with most birds choosing the sound of silence as they go through the moult. An invisible, cloying, blanket seems to descend upon the landscape somehow muffling all soundas summerbegins to hint that its end is nigh. The first hints of autumn may soon be subtly changing textures and hues. Thus, many of the trees are beginning to look tired; that freshness has gone from the leaves. It is as if they know their fate. In another month, the chlorophyll will have retreated sufficiently for those leaves to signal the inexorable progress towards another, cooler season. The annual shutdown approaches! If soon the leaves will begin to take on even stronger hues for their last, colourful, autumnal finale of the year, summer days are not yet, quite done.

Yet there are, as August drifts by, those members of the avian community which still want to have their say. In recent days there has for instance, been much mewing from high flying buzzards in this and many other airts. One writer once described this wild sound thus:- “That watchful, lordly and commanding call powerfully evokes all the history and wildness of high and ancient places.” Perhaps the current, very evident increase in buzzard mewing, which, although here hardly reflects a ‘high and ancient’ setting, may nevertheless, represent a newly found sense of freedom enjoyed by the parent birds, the job of nurturing their youngsters, to all intents and purposes, done. Yet, that increased level of vocalisation may also reflect the sense of freedom enjoyed by the youngsters themselves as they begin to explore their newly discovered world.

This is perhaps, our most common bird of prey, yet historically, it has been one of our most cruelly persecuted. It may well be its own worst enemy with its relatively ‘lazy’ flight patterns making it an easy target for the gun, despite enjoying the protection of the law down the years. However, there are those who still target buzzards, accusing them of taking young game birds. Thankfully, in recent times, the incidence of poisoned baits being laid in our landscape has fallen, yet buzzards and kites, both of which eagerly seize any opportunity to exploit carrion, are all too often the victims of such atrocities. Such incidents illustrate the utterly ruthless and selfish attitude of some minority sections of the shooting community.

Buzzards have certainly found their world to be one of ups and downs. The illegal introduction of myxomatosis in the nineteen fifties, had a knock on effect on buzzards, their numbers having increased markedly as rabbit populations had soared during the pre-war and immediately post-war years. When the dreaded myxi struck, initially the buzzard population enjoyed a real bonanza but soon, as rabbit populations plummeted, the feast was followed by a famine and as a result, buzzard breeding rates soon began to fall. There are places where in recent times, rabbit populations seem to have staged something of a recovery albeit that hereabouts no such recovery is evident. Such returning riches will I’m sure, be welcomed by buzzards universally!

Although back in the nineteenth century, rather unkindly described as, ‘dull, stupid and heavy, a sleepy and cowardly fellow’, the buzzard is in fact something of an opportunist. It may be accused of sitting around, either perched idly on some telegraph pole or on a tree for hours on end, simply hoping for some hapless rodent to come within range. Alternatively it can be seen drifting idly (some even suggest aimlessly) about the sky. Indeed, the buzzard is capable of turning its broad wings to many different ways of earning a living. Seldom in my experience is ‘aimless’ even a consideration in the buzzard mind-set, For instance, I once witnessed a buzzard drifting ‘harmlessly’ alongside a hedgerow, when a blackbird, in typically hasty fashion exploded from the vegetation. The buzzard turned ‘on a sixpence’ and plucked the fleeing merle out of thin air, a la sparrow-hawk! Buzzards also hover in their pursuit of small rodents, not as consummately as kestrels of course, yet often to pretty good effect. But carrion remains an important source of food and road kills on quieter roads are regularly exploited. But at worst, buzzards in the absence of other food sources, are not by any means, too proud to feast on worms and beetles, in which mode, they can look slightly ungainly and comical. Buzzards are definitely not at their best on the ground, their ‘glory’ being undoubtedly when they are on the wing.

In these parts of course, the buzzard is colloquially known as ‘the tourist’s eagle’. This is a sobriquet it has earned due to the supposition on the part of the many visitors to Scotland each summer, that the relatively large bird with a hooked beak, seen perched on that telegraph pole or tree, is an eagle. To those who are not familiar with eagles (probably most people!) I guess it is not such a surprising misconception. However, eagles seldom if ever perch on telegraph poles! One recent experience of watching a buzzard using all its muscles to ‘stand still’ on a brisk breeze coming off the sea near the top of a cliff, was cause enough to admire its superb control. But what surprised me was the fact that not only was it demonstrating its superb flying skill, it was also showing a surprising side to its character …. a taste for fun! Suddenly the bird dropped a stone it had been carrying in one of its talons and instantly went into a stunning and very rapid dive to catch it before it reached the ground, immediately returning to its mid-air station to repeat the game many times over! A side of buzzard personality I had not previously experienced.

Yet, as much as I personally admire buzzards, rejoice in that wild ‘mewing’ and much admire their drifting flight, the arrival of the similarly sized red kites in our skies some years ago now, has provided a new dimension. The calling of kites is perhaps slightly reedier than that of buzzards yet it conveys the same wild spirit in much the same way. Kites too soar and drift, proscribing fascinating patterns across our skies. Their passage is perhaps marginally more predictable and ordered, as they progress across the landscape in wide circles. Kites are less bulky, their wings thus appearing to be more voluminous. Indeed, perhaps because they are lighter and more finely proportioned, their flight can be accordingly, more breathtaking. But thus far I’ve yet to see a kite play with a stone in the manner of that lone buzzard. Both of these now familiar raptors animate our skies in their different ways but equally gloriously. But right now, whilst most other birds stay quiet, it is almost as if the local buzzards are issuing a wistful forecast that summer is slowly ebbing!

Country View 27.7.16

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Love is still in the air. For most of the avian classes, the future has been determined and new generations produced. And whereas swallows and martins still harbour ambitions to keep that momentum going, most birds have called it a day. Not so it seems collared doves! These somewhat lightweight, yet territorially ambitious doos are certainly living up to the reputation they have gained as prolific breeders. There is a well-ensconced pair resident here which is clearly determined to carry on breeding. Furthermore, so deep are running the cock bird’s passions, that any interruption of his courtship rituals, are like a red rag to a bull.

Magpies were some years ago, a real rarity hereabouts and indeed, were entirely absent to the north. They are rarely regarded as residents of Highland territory. In recent years however, they have increased in number in this airt and indeed have crept ever closer to the edge of the Highlands so that there is now a permanent presence here, much one suspects, to the chagrin of many of the other avian residents. I suppose that, not only do they, given half a chance, devour the eggs and chicks of other neighbouring, breeding birds but that they are also in many ways, bullies, throwing their weight around and generally making more than a nuisance of themselves. But the male collared dove’s having none of it.

Our garden arch is a favourite perch for my pair of romantically attached doves and last week I recounted a tale about the male dove’s determination in defending that perch against marauding young magpies. Well, he’s been at it again … this time flagrantly attacking a magpie, descending to the ground and soundly beating it up using all the weaponry at his disposal – beak but especially feet, a la fighting cockerel. Perhaps he’s the local Kick-Boxing expert? He certainly put that magpie very firmly in its place, sending it packing before quickly reverting to type and going for a spot more canoodling with his mate. Looks very definitely can deceive for nothing in normal circumstance, could surely look gentler and more submissive, as opposed to this display of naked aggression, than a collared dove.

When not perched nonchalantly on the garden arch, this pair of love-birds is to be seen foraging beneath the bird table, taking advantage of the food dropped as siskins and goldfinches argue and frequently have spats over prime feeding positions at the feeders. I’ve experimented this year, maintaining a stock of sunflower hearts and nyjer seed, which has entertainingly, retained a population of these colourful birds, plus the inevitable chaffinches and a solitary greenfinch. A few years ago, greenfinches were common currency here but in recent times they seem to have moved on. I am aware of their presence elsewhere but not in recent times, here - until this recent arrival.

As the cloak of silence, a feature of our landscape in July and August, has descended, there has been little in the way of birdsong. There are notable exceptions; the ‘cuck-cucko-coo’ of the collared doves, the coarse cawing of the local family of crows and the cackling of the magpies.  The doves alone it seems, amongst the sedentary birds that choose this airt as their permanent home, summer and winter, continue to harbour romantic ambitions. I use the word sedentary advisedly, conscious as I am of the remarkably mobile history of these now utterly commonplace, yet relatively recently arrived residents.

The news these days seems dominated by the passage of millions of human migrants into Europe, many of them from the Middle East. Indeed, this mass movement of people is one of the most controversial issues, troubling ordinary people and politicians in equal measure. Perhaps the collared doves set the precedent when in the early part of the twentieth century, they began to move north and west from Asia into the Balkans and thence as the years passed, across the whole of Europe. No-one in Britain had ever seen a collared dove until 1955. Astonishingly, between 1930 and 1970 it is estimated that these very upwardly mobile birds had colonised around a million square miles across Europe. This massive migration incidentally, continued through the years of the Second World War, when presumably, they also spent a lot of their time dodging bullets!

The European population, over the course of some seventy years or so has gone from zero to roughly fourteen million. However, barring a few notable exceptions,  you are unlikely to find many collared doves in remote places. In general they stay close to human habitation, doubtless taking full advantage of our generosity (it is estimated that half of British households actively feed the birds in their gardens) and indeed of our profligacy too. However, scientists have discovered that collared doves have quite large brains and have readily adapt their foraging to the circumstance in which they find themselves as they continue to spread their wings and colonise further territory.

We cannot be sure what triggered the sudden expansion of collared dove territory, except to say that they seem extremely capable of seeking out places where human activity presents them with the opportunity to feed. Their progress across Britain was simply mind boggling and even more so when they first arrived in Scotland. From the first arrival in south east England in 1955, they had reached Moray two years later, They settled in Ayrshire in 1959 – I well remember their mass arrival at a distillery where they quickly became a nuisance, and rather later, 1969, in this airt. However, their ambitions were such that they had arrived in the Outer Hebrides by 1962 and perhaps even more astonishingly in the barren environment of uninhabited St Kilda in 1965, in what might have seemed an archipelago too far! I’m not sure if they’re still there? Their regular appearance on isolated oil rigs out in the North Sea therefore comes as no surprise.

A long time ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to introduce rabbits to Australia, in much the same way as someone also thought it was a good idea to introduce grey squirrels to Britain back in the late eighteen hundreds. Neither turned out to be good ideas, for both ran totally wild! So we should not be surprised that albeit through luck rather than by management when captive birds escaped from their aviary in the Bahamas and flew to Florida, that now collared doves are spreading across the States … apparently at twice the rate they spread across Europe. What I wonder, does Mr Trump think of that – a no fly zone perhaps? If they turn out to be as feisty as my resident pair and considering that collared doves in Britain have been known to breed here in almost every month of the year - then birds across the Atlantic better look out!

Country View 13.7.16

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Anyone who has had the joy of rearing litters of puppies or kittens will be well aware of the propensity of these domesticated young creatures to play. This is when they begin to explore their own places in the world; whether, for instance, they are destined to be at the top of any pecking order they subsequently find themselves in, at the bottom or indeed, somewhere in the middle. These early excursions into learning about life – as a dog or a cat of course – are important for the place each animal will establish for themselves in those early days and will set the scene for the rest of their lives. Bouts of play are therefore highly formative in terms of character building; this is where those puppies and kittens establish their individual personalities as well as their places in their family’s hierarchy, however temporary. 

Perhaps surprisingly, some wild animals exhibit exactly the same traits. Most demonstrably, you may find exactly the same structures and skills developing in fox and badger cubs. Observations of badger cubs over a number of years have led me to conclude that those first weeks and months of life for these essentially wild creatures are very little different from the behaviour of their domestic counterparts. Except, of course, that for wild creatures the essential elements of being able to survive are much more important. Young wild animals have to learn pretty quickly that denied the convenience and comfort of domestic life where food is provided, as enjoyed by cats and dogs, their lives will eventually depend upon their ability to find and indeed kill their own food. That instinct, mark you, is still retained by most domestic cats although it is dulled in dogs.

On many occasions, when watching young badgers play, it was easy to see which of the cubs were soon showing a trait of ‘bossing’ their siblings. ‘King of the Castle’, or the badger version of that game, always very quickly revealed one dominant cub - usually by the way, a young boar – which repeatedly vanquished its siblings to be king! On the rare occasions when I was able to watch badger and fox cubs play together, that situation did appear to become rather complicated. On such occasions, the badger cubs seemed to ‘boss’ their foxy neighbours, yet there was always the feeling that the fox cubs allowed that situation to happen as a matter of convenience rather than reality! Inherent craftiness perhaps?

An aptitude for play remains in the psyche of many dogs and cats even in old age. Furthermore, this is a trait most certainly shared by otters in the wild, which seem to retain a willingness to play throughout their lives. Never was this more clearly demonstrated some years ago when I witnessed a family of otters repeatedly sliding down a river-bank on a snowy winter’s day. All of them took the plunge time and time again before swimming back to the bank, clambering up it and doing it all over again.

The sight of lambs charging about en masse in my paddock and in particular, a bout of head butting between two of them, reminded me of a particularly unusual incidence of play when we found ourselves rearing a young roe deer kid. We had at the same time, acquired a young collie pup. Initially, the doe kid, which came here when only three days old, lived in a large cardboard box. She soon learned how to jump out of it and quickly discovered the pup, which she was soon chasing through the house. The pup would then chase her back! It was, as far as we could see, a game enjoyed by both in equal measure and came as something of a surprise for I had never seen young deer in the wild react this way before. Nor have I since! However, there is it seems, an in-built propensity within even shy young deer, to play!

But a consensus view might conclude that such antics are confined to mammals. Such a conclusion was firmly negated the other morning, when I watched a family of crows in my garden. It was around six in the morning, before the household had awoken. The four young crows, now almost fully grown, were loitering beneath the bird-table which is still being stocked with sunflower hearts and nyjer seed, as a result of which is that we are literally swarming with colourful siskins and goldfinches. Being untidy eaters these birds regularly leave a crust of seed on the floor below the table and this was what the young crows were busy pecking at. Periodically, the two parent birds flew in to deliver perhaps larger quantities of insects and insect larvae from the surrounding fields, impelled by the fawning, cawing youngsters and not least by the colourful interiors of their mouths.

In between these parental feeding sessions, the young crows amused themselves by chasing each other and tweaking the tails of their siblings. I am aware that crows do not generally generate much public interest or indeed sympathy but here was a demonstration of avian play. They strutted – in that ‘Chaplinesque’ way that typifies the gait of crows – and they tweaked, sneaking up behind their siblings and thus making them jump. It was clearly a source of some amusement to the ‘tweakers’ and indeed there were clearly in equal measure, victims and perpetrators among the four of them! There are also some young magpies hereabouts. Indeed I made very close acquaintance with one of them which I discovered in my sitting room. A trail of soot all over the hearth revealed how it had got there … down the chimney! It has a sibling and these two are becoming increasingly independent of their parents.

They too have a sense of humour, albeit perhaps a rather macabre one! A collared dove has in recent days, taken up residence on a garden archway and one afternoon this week, one of the young magpies decided it was time to have its version of ‘King of the Castle’! So it flew at the dove, which I would have expected to quickly cede its perch to its black and white rival. However the dove, which I’m sure has a mate sitting on eggs somewhere in the vicinity, was having none of it and angrily stood his ground. The magpie tried hard to unseat him but the dove retaliated and would not be moved. Enter stage left the second young magpie.

Still he resisted until this puckish pair became such a nuisance, that he brought the game to an abrupt close and flew off. The two magpies showed no further interest, made no attempt to pursue their victim and immediately stopped the game. Just like ill behaved, naughty hooligans, they simply diverted their attention to whatever insect life they could find on the lawn to eat! It was, in their young minds I’m sure, no more than a game.

It all goes to show that crows, no matter what we think of them, also play games. I have often seen those massive members of the crow clan, ravens, cavort about the sky, flying upside down or spiralling through the air … just for fun. And of course, I have also frequently watched great gatherings of rooks and jackdaws fling themselves about the sky in great games of tag on windy days. Nothing serves better to illustrate the fact that all members of the crow clan are fun loving, surely a sign that they are, like cats and dogs, foxes and badgers, highly intelligent but always wickedly mischievous.  This is what constantly motivates them to play!  It is an inherent trait, albeit sometimes with evil intent!

Country View 7.7.16

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“Go west young man,” the old adage suggests. So once more I did! A change of scenery to a marine environment on Scotland’s rugged west coast provided the opportunity to watch perhaps, a different spectrum of wildlife. However it was not so different as it turned out … except we don’t see many gannets hereabouts and there they were, patrolling high above the waters of the sea loch, the shores of which were our temporary abode. I have a great admiration for these spectacular seabirds. Indeed, in what is remembered as another life, I was a regular visitor to that lump of granite stationed out in the Firth of Clyde, called Ailsa Craig and was therefore a frequent observer of the sheer majesty of fishing, gannet style.

At times those gannets resembled guided missiles as they speared into the clear, green waters surrounding ‘Paddy’s Milestone’. Their entry into the sea even seemed to be accompanied by a distinct hiss, as with wings folded tightly to their bodies, to shape them as perfectly streamlined projectiles, they rained down. That speed of entry was astonishing and the waters clear enough for me to follow them to surprising depths – up to fifteen feet or so down.

As several of these large and far-flying fishers would take the plunge at the same time, the waters fairly boiled with gannets. They were just so spectacular, striking the water with such force yet cleaving it so perfectly. Indeed, gannets have uniquely developed neck muscles and are equipped with special air filled sacs under the skin of the head and neck, plus a spongy bone plate at the base of the bill as special adaptations to protect them. Thus, these remarkable and impressive birds are able to withstand the immense impact of diving headlong into the water, sometimes from heights of up to a hundred feet. In addition, gannets are equipped with special membranes over the eyes and uniquely configured nostrils which prevent water entering the respiratory system.

Re-acquaintance with these spectacular birds is always welcome but there were other treats in store provided on my first day by a roebuck which after browsing contentedly on the vegetation of a well wooded little peninsular, suddenly decided.it was time for him to literally make his mark. Roe deer always give the impression of being alert yet placid – even gentle - but during these summer months, establishing or re-establishing territory, overtakes roebuck emotions and they become quite feisty. This fellow suddenly decided it was time to assert his dominance of this particular patch by violently thrashing a sapling with his antlers. Roebuck have scent glands on the head and this thrashing, an activity not exactly popular with foresters, firmly places his scent on that sapling and thus lays claim to territory.

There was, during this flash of roebuck ‘temper’, a rather nervy musical accompaniment provided by a pair of sandpipers. Their frantic protesting piping at my presence on ‘their’ beach and their quick winged evacuation, typically flying ahead of me in little semi-circles out over the waves and back to the shore, and then repeating the process in reverse as I returned, is the almost neurotic epitome of sandpiper behaviour. Eventually returning to the shore, they vanish before your very eyes, such is the effectiveness of their camouflaging plumage. Among the boulders and pebbles they simply disappear!

However, the one acquaintance I wanted most earnestly to renew was with the otters for which the west coast is rightly renowned. I was not disappointed.  Day one and a dog otter came lithely swimming into our little bay, took a look round and then arced below the waves to disappear round the point, leaving no trace of his presence save for a trail of bubbles. Subsequently, a young bitch otter was to scuttle along the far shore of the bay before taking the plunge. Being late June with almost endless hours of daylight, our otter watching time was extended nearly until midnight.

Our next encounter (of a furred kind) was more surprising when the next otter sighting occurred within feet of our vantage point. This time, the animal had forsaken the sea, climbed the beach and squeezed under the garden gate to scamper across the lawn and enter the adjacent wood where a little burn carried fresh water down to the bay. Otters that spend much of their time in sea water, like to have access to fresh water in order to rid their coats of salt. Thus when setting out to watch otters in a salt water environment, it is always worth bearing in mind that they often like to be within easy reach of fresh water.

Of course it is not essential to travel to the coast to see otters. We have a population of these endearing animals locally, a long way from the sea. But here they are considerably more elusive, seldom seen during daylight hours, perhaps because there are always more people around. On the rather more remote west coast, where there are fewer people, the otters seem to be a little less covert in character and consequently more observable.

Otters are arguably the most popular of our native animals, yet amongst the hardest to see. They are, of course, utterly at home in the watery environment, lithe swimmers equipped with webbed feet, a healthy growth of whiskers key to their ability to locate their prey, fish, crabs and a variety of other crustaceans. However, it is not so long ago that packs of otter hounds existed and otter hunting was a regular field sport. Such activities are no longer pursued and otter hunting is banned but there are salmon fishers of my acquaintance, who are not kindly disposed towards otters. The man who perhaps, put otters firmly on the public’s radar was the late Gavin Maxwell, whose book, ”Ring of Bright Water” was not only a best seller but brought the otter well and truly into the spotlight.

Not all otters are shy. A few years ago, my attention was drawn to an otter which had taken up residence in the busy waters of Tobermory Bay in Mull, to be seen regularly swimming amongst the boats anchored in the bay in full view of the visiting public. Furthermore, there have been many occasions when otters have been emboldened enough to regularly explore the decks of fishing boats moored in harbours in the hope of finding a few stray prawns and fish scraps.

A few years ago I visited a sea loch – again in the west of Scotland - renowned for its otter population, with otter watching at the top of my agenda. Having examined the shoreline for signs of otters, I set myself up in the evening stationed atop of a large boulder immediately overlooking a beach which I was sure was regularly used by a family of otters. My reward came quickly when a bitch otter swam out into the loch with two cubs. She soon caught a fish, bringing it to the shore immediately below my boulder, hotly pursued by the cubs. I watched utterly transfixed as the two cubs squabbled over the prize, eventually, once they had sorted ownership of the by now bits of fish, devouring it with relish. What superb entertainment that was! So it was last week great to renew acquaintance with these enchanting creatures.

Out west it is utterly otterly but murderously midgie!

Country View 28.6.16

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Statisticians tell us that ever-increasing numbers of young folk, and it seems not so young folk, are remaining for longer in their parental homes. Many thirty-somethings, I am told, are in other words still tied to their mother’s apron strings! Whilst soaring property prices, especially in the ‘magnetic’ south-eastern corner of England, may be largely responsible for this ‘stay at home’ phenomenon, it is also perhaps the case that getting your laundry done and being well fed are also contributory factors.

Nature is not usually quite so accommodating, so there comes a time in the lives of young birds and animals, when they have little choice in such matters. They simply have to leave their parents’ homes. Take those ambitious birds, which for instance, devote their entire summers to the rearing and nurturing of successive generations of youngsters, like swallows and especially house martins. Martins routinely produce three broods of youngsters during their sojourn here before returning to South Africa, presumably to recuperate during our winter and recover from the stamina sapping process of procreation.

Thus the youngsters from the first and then the second broods have very quickly to become self-sufficient, as their parents put all their efforts into any additional broods year leaving the older chicks to their own devices. Several other birds throw themselves into the breeding season with equal enthusiasm and their earlier broods likewise, have to be able to find food and look after themselves very quickly. Of course, the chicks of some ground nesting birds are precocious enough to be upwardly mobile almost from the moment they emerge from the egg. Indeed I well remember, a good few years ago when lapwings regularly nested in the surrounding fields, watching with considerable amusement, young, newly hatched lapwing chicks scuttling about with parts of the shell in which they had been encased, still attached to them.

Alas the gorgeous ‘pee-wit’ of lapwings well into the night at midsummer here is no longer something to savour. Lapwings in general are I’m afraid, much less common than they were just a few short years ago. As many older folk may recall, the first clutches of lapwing eggs were and in some circles may still be regarded as delicacies. They were collected and either eagerly consumed in many a farm kitchen or despatched to a few exclusive restaurants in the certain knowledge that the lapwings would almost certainly immediately lay another clutch. Whilst newly hatched lapwing chicks are instantly mobile and indeed are, within a remarkably short time of hatching, soon pecking away at food, they will not discover the power of flight for around five weeks. Thus they are carefully chaperoned during that period … continuing in other words to be tied to those apron strings.

There is here at present, a cacophony of cawing early in the mornings. A pair of crows has produced a nest full of young crows, which are now fledged. Each of the youngsters has been stationed in different locations, presumably as a security measure, so we seem to be surrounded by these noisy birds loudly demanding to be fed. Not many folk have much time for crows - indeed there are many who literally hate them. The fact that they are black birds does not help their cause of course. A fear of all largish black birds seems to be built into some people’s psyche. Perhaps it’s in their genes? At any rate this antipathy towards them certainly goes a long way back to a time when perhaps many people’s lives were driven almost entirely by superstition.

Crows are not among the birds that go in for multiple families. One in a season is deemed to be enough! The youngsters fly at around thirty days of age and are carefully nurtured by extremely dedicated parents. Crows are the epitome of that age-old expression, ‘red in tooth and claw’. They are guilty, for instance, of the murder of the young birds of other species, taken from nests and where there are sheep, guilty of pecking out lamb’s eyes and tongues. Such activities place them very firmly on the hit lists of shepherds and gamekeepers. Hooded crows, residents almost exclusively of the Highlands, are even more hated!

And the same attitude is taken by many folk with regard to foxes. Like crows, foxes are sometimes guilty of crimes against farming man as well as shooting man. And like crows, foxes are dedicated parents and also possessors of considerable levels of intelligence. Furthermore, fox cubs are extremely precocious and adventurous, with many of this year’s crop of cubs already largely living independent lives. Dog fox cubs are especially adventurous and have to be simply because their fathers will not tolerate them for long in their territory. The attitude towards the vixen cubs is more tolerant for vixens as they mature, often act as nursemaids to succeeding generations of the same family in subsequent years. Foxes, regarded by some as loners, actually live in somewhat complicated communities. A dog fox for instance, will hold a substantial territory with which he may share a number of vixens. The vixens will vie for dominance and in normal circumstances the dog, when the time comes, will eventually mate only with the most dominant one.

There is however, plenty of evidence to show that in areas where foxes are pursued and persecuted over zealously, the dog fox will mate with other vixens too, increasing productivity as a compensation for that increased level of persecution. Foxes have been regarded as ‘the prime enemies’ of farmers for many generations. Indeed the pastime of fox hunting may have initially been seen as a necessity before becoming a ‘field sport’! Such was the initial impact of fox control in the distant past. As long ago as the 14th century the Persians used fox hunting as a means of military training. However, the Kings of England had already by then, established their own packs of foxhounds. In more modern times, fox-hunting has become more of a social event than a matter of pest control. During a short sojourn in the fox-hunting country of Leicestershire many years ago, I became familiar with the sight of fox-hunts with their hounds streaming across the countryside. I also learnt that fox cubs were frequently reared by employees of the hunts in order to guarantee they had at a later date, something to chase!

Previously however, foxes had not, by comparison for instance with the hare and the hart, been a prime focus for the hunts but once fox-hunting became popular, far from being the case that foxes were seen as ‘vermin’, they had become quarries. Ironically, in times past, foxes had to be imported from the Continent to satisfy demand! And, farmers were paid to allow foxes to breed on their land! Nor in the more modern context is hunting even an efficient way of controlling fox numbers. Like crows, foxes are exceptionally intelligent and it is certainly not unknown for a fox to lead a hunt into another fox’s territory, before taking evasive action itself! Hunting foxes with hounds is currently of course, outlawed.

The movement of foxes into suburban and even into city centre Britain has encouraged in modern times, a very different attitude towards foxes. Many people based in such locations enjoy the spectacle of foxes cavorting in their gardens. So nowadays, although in many rural areas, the war against foxes continues – perhaps futilely – elsewhere they are literally adored!

These midsummer evenings are as good a time as any to go fox cub watching as they cast aside those apron strings and venture into the wide, wide world and manage, so early in their lives, to make a living! They are clever little souls!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods