Why Mr Fox really is fantastic: They’re branded cruel predators or mangy scavengers… yet are such wonders they can hear a watch ticking at 60 feet away. Now, in a gloriously lyrical book, a naturalist gives the case for the defence
Already late that February evening, I was crossing the hall when the phone rang. What should have been a brief conversation lasted a fatal 20 minutes.
By the time I put down the receiver and opened the front door to walk to the orchard, it was too late. I knew it immediately.
The evening air was as dull and dead as a turned-off TV screen and, as I neared the little wooden shed, there was none of the familiar, contented murmurings of chickens settling to sleep. But I hoped, as you do.
Until the very last moment, when I lifted the hut door, I hoped. But all four of our Light Sussex hens had disappeared.
On the strawed floor of the hut, displayed under torchlight like an art exhibit, was the corpse of my daughter’s pet duck, Alfreda, the blood on the back of her neck still sticky-warm to the touch.
Naturalist John-Lewis Stempel recalls how what was meant to be a brief phone call ended up being 20 minutes and by then, it was already too late for his chickens
There is always a terrible, echoing emptiness when the fox comes to visit — or, less euphemistically, slaughter.
It is never believable and for a mad moment I probed the torch beam around the orchard, in case the four Henriettas — as we call our Light Sussex hens — had roosted in an apple tree. Up a pear tree. A cherry.
My fault, of course, the death of our chickens and duck.
I should have put down the phone earlier, been less concerned to satisfy some human insistence, done my job as poultry keeper.
The fox was merely doing what foxes do: kill when the opportunity presents.
In that moment I despised the fox. Yet I admired her, too.
The one time in the year I was late shutting in the fowl, she was there, killed five and took away four. To coin a phrase, I had been outfoxed.
That night of the fox was only the latest of my encounters with our largest land carnivore.
When I was seven, a fox stole my pet bantam.
Later, aged 12, I was clinging to the side of a tractor cab when the farmhand and I saw a fox foam-flecked around the mouth from the exertion of fleeing the hounds.
‘Poor bugger,’ said the farmhand, revving into the lane just in time to block the hounds with the trailer full of cow muck.
Even above the diesel din of the engine, we could hear the hunt cursing and banging on the trailer with whip handles.
The farmhand gave me a wink and I gave him one back.
I have watched foxes on our Herefordshire farm stalking snowy fields by starshine, and been thrilled by their grace and beauty as they sped after rabbits in the meadow or sat and played with cubs.
Once, I sneaked up on a fox digging by the brook on a blowy day, and got so close that I could touch his tail and say: ‘Boo!’
It was a little revenge on the creature that comes calling in the night.
His four Sussex hens had disappeared and the corpse of his daughter’s pet duck, Alfreda, lay on the straw floor of the shut
Despite vigilance and electric fencing, we have had poultry taken four times in the past 20 years.
I am still flabbergasted by the fox that managed to turn off the electric fence around the chickens by pawing the wires of the tractor battery that powered it.
But everyone who has lived around foxes has a true tale to tell about their unnerving intelligence, including the Russian documentary maker who, in 1961, captured a fox feigning death to lure a hapless crow within its reach.
My grandfather, a fox-hunting tenant farmer, once watched a fox escape the pack by walking 20 yards along the top of a newly flailed hedge, putting each paw carefully on upright stubs of hazel and hawthorn.
He also witnessed chased foxes double back on their tracks, enter a house and roll in farmyard manure to fool the hounds.
So I have come to regard the fox with antinomies in my head, held together like the negative and positive terminals on a battery.
Hate/Love. Detestation/ Admiration. Livestock-killing pest/Noble hunter . . .
Such dichotomies do not suit those whose prescriptive propaganda presents the fox as all good or bad.
Rural huntspeople and city habitués see the fox as ‘vermin’, purely as lamb-killer or polluter of patios with its excrement.
Or, worse, the biter of babes in their bedrooms.
At the other extreme there are fox charities that would have one believe that the fox is without menace, where its classification ‘omnivore’ becomes doublespeak for ‘virtually vegan’.
This robs the fox of its essential brilliant truth: it is a clever killer, a dogged hunter, as efficient in dealing death as an assassin.
That is why the sight of the fox, whether in a winter wood or under the orange glow of a city street light, makes the blood sing.
For years I had a stuffed fox in my childhood bedroom, a present from my father.
I spent hours poring over the wonder of it — its sleekness, the precision power of its jaws, the magnificent bulk of its brush.
As well as for balance when climbing trees, the fox uses that bushy tail to keep warm, wrapping it around its head and front when lying down: its own fur coat.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the brilliant hue of that fur saw fox stoles (complete with head and paws) become de rigueur on the shoulders of starlets including Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, likely the origin of the slang ‘foxy’ for a sexually attractive woman.
Other parts of the fox were once prescribed as medieval medicine and would have needed more than a spoonful of honey to help them down.
Brains fed to infants warded off epilepsy; ashes of incinerated fox flesh dunked in wine cured breathlessness; fox fat was a putative cure for gout and rubbed on to bald heads as a cure for alopecia.
Meanwhile, adults were encouraged to tie the member of a male fox around their heads to relieve migraine.
The vulpine impact is no better gauged than on our maps.
‘Fox’ is the most popular animal-related place name in England, with 206 sites named for the species.
(‘Badger’ comes second with 141.) Foxcombe Hill, Foxfields, Foxton . . .
‘Tod’ was a country word for fox, so Todmorden and Toddington, too.
Maybe you are reading this in a market-town pub.
There’s a good chance it’s called The Fox And Hounds. Glance up at the walls. They may well be hung with prints of fox hunting.
That hoard of Christmas cards you received? Even though it was made illegal in 2005, card manufacturers still consider hunting to epitomise the traditional spirit of the British countryside.
Today, around 160,000 foxes per year are shot by farmers, gamekeepers and pest-control officers in cities. Culling is not the main cause of death in foxes, however.
One study of urban foxes reported that most were killed by trains or cars.
Fox lives are brutal, nasty and short. Most cubs do not survive their first year, and almost all foxes die before their fourth birthday.
In the wild, the average life span is 18 months.
Generally monogamous, they breed once a year, in January and February, when the vixen is on heat for three weeks and screams for a mate, the eeriest sound of the British night.
There are usually three to six cubs in a litter, these born in April.
Toffee-coloured and fluffy, they are wall-poster cute but within a month or two of their birth, their mother takes them hunting.
These lessons in killing last until September, when the cubs are full-size. Otherwise, foxes tend to hunt alone.
Originally a woodland animal, the fox begins the night shift in the half-hour before dusk, when the small creatures of the wood are stirring and leaving their lairs, and when the birds are coming home to roost.
Then the wood is nothing but grey shades and the fox but a lone shadow among a thousand, armed with extraordinarily good night vision and a sense of smell which can sniff out a mammal as far as 3 ft below the surface.
He also has hearing so acute that he can hear a watch ticking at 60 ft.
The sinewy strength that enables foxes to sprint at up to 30mph and catch a running rabbit also allows them to carry a heavy load in their jaws, such as a goose, fat for Christmas, while leaping a wire fence. (As I know to my cost.)
The canine teeth prove the fox’s essential carnivorousness, but it will eat near everything it can get its spring-trap jaws on, even other foxes — a literal dog eat dog.
A fox loose in the hen house or the lambing field will kill more chickens or lambs than it can cope with. Hence the view that they kill wantonly and for pure love of killing.
To an extent, perhaps. A kind of blood-madness does seem to overcome the fox presented with bounty, like a child unsupervised in a chocolate factory.
However, foxes also cache and may come back for the slaughtered goods: the vulpine equivalent of filling up the larder.
Diet is somewhat seasonal. Summer staples include earthworms sucked up from wet, warm grass like spaghetti.
The Wild Life Of The Fox by John Lewis-Stempel
In winter, foxes rely mainly on smaller mammals such as mice, rabbits and especially voles.
Until the 1920s, the fox in Britain was almost exclusively rural; with the spread of the metroland semi and its long garden, with the handy shed under which an earth could be scratched, it conquered the suburbs and then the town proper.
In Bristol there are 37 foxes per square kilometre; in the countryside, on average, two.
While urban foxes do eat wild things — those in Central London probably eat more rats than their country cousins — they also scavenge from bins for leftovers. S
ince British society throws away about a third of the food it purchases, waste food is plentiful.
As for deterrents, Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman naturalist and scholar, suggested several.
One was to put a collar of fox skin around the neck of a cockerel so that the smell would transfer to the hens mating with it and give them immunity from fox attack.
Since foxes are territorial creatures, rarely straying into the domain of rivals, there is perhaps more than hopeful magic at work in this remedy, but I prefer more conventional techniques.
As I write this, the light outside is failing and the blackbirds of the orchard are chinking.
In their den in the wood, the foxes will be waking from their sleep — it is almost their time. They belong to the night, and the night belongs to them.
So I must away to shut in the poultry and beat the fox to it. It’s an old, old game.
Adapted from The Wild Life Of The Fox by John Lewis-Stempel, published by Transworld at £9.99. © John Lewis-Stempel 2020.
To order a copy for £8.49 (offer valid to November 6, 2020), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.
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