Thursday, 30 August 2012

Storm fox

It's often said that the British dislike success. It smacks too much of big-headedness, of over-confidence.

Maybe it's for this reason that we have such an difficult relationship with vulpes vulpes - our native, red fox. Hated by farmers and gamekeepers. Hunted with rifles and dogs. Always the baddie in children's stories. They don't get a good press.

And there's no denying foxes are indeed extremely successful - the most successful carnivores on the planet, in terms of their range. You can find their delicate, four-toed tracks in the snowfields of Arctic Russia and the sands of North Africa. And the distinctive musky scent of their passing hangs in the air of a Japanese city street as readily as on the Scottish mountains or the ancient woodlands of the south.

There is a list - I discovered today - of the 100 worst invasive species in the world, compiled by the illustrious International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and foxes are on it. Their introduction into Australia has had disastrous consequences for the native wildlife. And even in the UK it is not only seen as the bane of poultry keepers and pheasant growers, but of many conservationists, struggling to protect the eggs and young of endangered ground-nesting birds like terns or lapwings.

Ironically we hardly ever see a fox in the fields or woods around Ashfield. I can count the number of times on the fingers of one hand over the 12 years that we have lived here. But I saw one yesterday in the low, rough range of hills a few miles east of the village known as the Ochils. We had stopped by a small lochan to eat our sandwiches, while the edge of a thunder storm scudded overhead, forks of lightning and spatters of rain pinning us inside our steamed-up car.

The fox appeared among the scrubby gorse thickets on the slope to the far side of the lochan, sitting alert and upright like an obedient dog. It glanced in our direction, but the misted windows must have obscured our outlines, for it looked through us, not at us. It was a privilege to watch the watcher. After a while its attention was caught by something in the grass, and our fox pranced and pounced on it - moving more like a cat than a dog. In fact, despite being one of the dog family, there is something quite definitely feline about the way foxes look and move. The pricked ears, the silky coat, the way they stretch after sleep. For the next ten minutes we watched through binoculars as it dawdled lazily around the gorse, wandering back and forth, in and out of the tall, rank grass and sheep-flattened paths before disappearing for good inside a dark, thorny clump. Perhaps the rain had become too tiresome.

But I did not think 'bloody show-off'. I thought 'brilliant animal'. Perfectly adapted for its environment - a native in his own world. The sight of it gladdened my day.

It's the pheasants and poultry that are the incomers here, not the fox. And though it's true that foxes are a threat to ground nesting birds, the issue is really that the habitat in which they can nest has shrunk, reducing their numbers to such an extent that the natural balance between prey and predator has changed. Foxes are not the villains.

I don't know why we don't have foxes around our village - perhaps they have all been shot, or perhaps the shortage of rabbits - which have also disappeared over the last 10 years, has starved them out. I do know that our landscape is the poorer for their absence.

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