I often enjoy evening walks in the spring and summer armed with just the camera or binoculars, observing wildlife but in particular foxes. You can learn a great deal about the behaviour of an animal by simply watching it. It’s something all good hunters should do, as if you don’t how do you hope to improve your knowledge of your quarry? It’s not so quite straight forward with foxes as they are predominantly nocturnal and elusive and, unless you know their ways and haunts, you are unlikely to see many. This is the advantage that the country sports man or woman have; we know many of the ways of our quarry. We know where best to look for that quarry.
Whilst it has been a terrible summer weather wise, I discovered that the foxes I’ve been observing were active earlier in the evenings when it was wet. This is possibly because there was less human activity when the weather was bad. On the few good summer evenings you are more likely to get dog walkers, ramblers, bog trotters, bird watchers or other such folk in the field. The alarm calls of birds are a good indicator that our friend the fox is stirring and on the move. Most people are aware of the raucous calls of the crow, magpie and jay. What about the blackbird and the chaffinch? The blackbird especially likes to alert the inhabitants of the countryside that a fox is on the prowl. It’s only this year that I learnt that the squirrel also makes an alarm call on sight of a fox after watching the antics of a clearly unhappy pair. I’m sure foxes, especially the suburban parkland dwellers, must take squirrels. I’d be interested to hear if any readers have ever seen a fox take one?
As in many country pursuits, the wind can be a major factor. In early May I sat out one evening by a fox den I knew had been left undisturbed. I was confident that cubs would be present and hoped to get a picture or two. There was only a slight breeze and I positioned myself with the breeze in my favour in relation to the den site. The breeze was blowing from the den to me and was directly in my face. The site was in a very small copse. The ground cover around the three hole den was mainly nettle, bramble and willow herb. I placed myself at a suitable distance, against the trunk of an ash tree using it to hide my background. It’s no use going too close to the holes or inspecting them and then expecting cubs to emerge. I hadn’t been near this site at all prior to this evening and had to hope that no-one else had. An indication that the site is in use is always nice and can give you confidence to wait patiently. The best way to check for pad marks, skins and other signs of cub activity from your chosen spot without going too close is to simply use binoculars. There was plenty of sign at this place, so I was reasonably confident that the cubs would emerge to play, hopefully before dusk.
About half an hour before dusk an alarm call from the vixen alerted the cubs not to emerge. They had been just inside the mouth of one of the holes at this point. The call came from directly behind me. I crouched down below the height of the ground cover and slid around the tree trunk 180 degrees before standing up so it still provided a background. The small field I’d walked across was bordered by dense bramble beds. There was the vixen on the far side of the field, about 30 yards away, looking right in my direction. She had clearly been laying up in the nearby brambles rather than in the den. She was stood in a direct line to me and her body language told me she was air scenting me. Needless to say the cubs didn’t emerge and the vixen disappeared into the brambles. There was my lesson for the night; learn where the vixen lays up and her usual approach to the den. Once the cubs become a certain size it is rare for the vixen to lay up below ground with them in this part of the country. She will normally be close by, as proved that night.
I learnt a long time ago that the best picture opportunities always occur when you either don’t have your camera or when you have just put it away. The simple solution is to always have your camera and have it out and ready even when you’re walking home or back to your vehicle. I’ve walked into foxes quite a few times when heading back after sitting out watching them. It happened to me only this week as I walked along a track. A surprised fox in a situation like this will normally dart for the safety of the nearest cover but they always seem to stop for a look back at you. The turning tail and darting away is a ‘fright & flight’ type limbic response. The stopping and looking back is probably to assess the nature of the situation from a safer distance in a more aware mode. It’s useless to try and squeak or call a fox you have just surprised like this as it’s fully aware of you and what you are. It doesn’t need to satisfy its curiosity. Calling only really works when the fox is unaware of your presence.
At the time of writing (July), the farmers are only just starting the cut of the odd crop around here. Much of it hasn’t yet ripened, possibly due to the lack of sun. I’ve already seen a couple of dead cubs on the roads. Once more crops are in we will get a better indication of the fox population. My own observations are that the foxes on the farm land are faring less well since the ban as many more seem to be getting shot. Meanwhile the foxes in the cities and suburbs continue to increase and now filter or overspill back into the countryside rather than the other way around as it once was. Who’d have ever thought this all those years ago when foxes first started appearing in our cities?
I’ll close with congratulations to Dave for completing 20 years of the magazine. I’m lucky enough to have them all in bound volumes on my book shelf and often take the pleasure of browsing back through old editions. They are a great source of entertainment, information and of course it gave many of us (like me) our first opportunity to see our words and pictures in print. Long may it continue.