In praise of fan­tas­tic Mr Fox

The wily fox has fas­ci­nated and frus­trated us for cen­turies. Game­keeper Si­mon Lester ex­am­ines man’s love-hate re­la­tion­ship with one of the clever­est preda­tors on Earth

Country Life Every Week - - Simon’s Kitchen -

Ithink i have this thing where every­body has to think i’m the great­est,’ de­clares Fan­tas­tic Mr Fox in Roald Dahl’s 1970s tale of an as­tute fox out­wit­ting three farm­ers. ‘And if they aren’t com­pletely knocked out and daz­zled and slightly in­tim­i­dated by me, i don’t feel good about my­self.’ in 40 years of liv­ing along­side foxes, as a game­keeper, i can at­test that Vulpes vulpes lives up to that rep­u­ta­tion.

this beau­ti­ful yet dev­as­tat­ingly de­struc­tive crea­ture, the num­ber-one preda­tor of game as well as lambs, poul­try and other wildlife, has had a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with Man for cen­turies, but the affin­ity be­tween hunter and hunted—the deep af­fec­tion and re­spect of the field sports­man for his quarry—is a para­dox that baf­fles some.

there is no more evoca­tive il­lus­tra­tion of this di­chotomy than D. W. nash’s eerily pre­scient poem, The Fox’s Prophecy (1871), which was pre­sented to the then mas­ter of the Led­bury hounds. it tells of a hunts­man chilled to the mar­row by an an­cient, griz­zled fox’s vi­sion of an al­tered coun­try­side—‘for swiftly o’er the level shore/the waves of progress ride;/the an­cient land­marks one by one/shall sink be­neath the tide.’

in th­ese verses, the dy­ing dog fox ar­tic­u­lates the maxim that all coun­try­men un­der­stand, that some­times you have to kill a crea­ture to pre­serve both it and the nat­u­ral or­der of the coun­try­side: ‘Yet think not, hunts­man, i re­joice/to see the end so near;/nor think the sound of horn and hound/to me a sound of fear…/ too well i know by wis­dom taught,/ the ex­is­tence of my race/o’er all wide Eng­land’s green do­main/is bound up with the chase.’

Al­though i have ac­counted for hun­dreds of foxes—there are be­lieved to be some 240,000 in the Uk, of which 14% live in ur­ban ar­eas —i would never want them to dis­ap­pear from our land­scape, a mix of emo­tions i think i share with even the most hard­ened coun­try­men. Foxes are spell­bind­ing, whether mous­ing, ears pricked, head cock­ing jerk­ily be­fore the lethal pounce, or play­ful, tum­bling cubs on a warm sum­mer evening.

Rey­nard is en­gross­ing, en­chant­ing and en­thralling, not only for his el­e­gant beauty—the bright or­ange/rust coat, black tipped ears, bright face and long, soft brush—but for his stealth, in­tel­li­gence and adapt­abil­ity too. the term ‘foxy’ is flat­ter­ing when ap­plied to an at­trac­tive lady and a ‘sil­ver fox’ im­plies a well-pre­served, sexy older man.

Ever since we re­moved bears, wolves and lynx from the Bri­tish land­scape, we have been the fox’s main con­trol­ling fac­tor and we have tried ev­ery con­ceiv­able way of killing them: traps, snares, poi­son and shoot­ing, as well, of course, as fox­hunt­ing.

When peo­ple de­pend on live­stock for sur­vival, any losses to pre­da­tion brings se­ri­ous con­se­quences, but the fox’s un­for­tu­nate habit of scat­ter killing—it will wil­fully slaugh­ter an en­tire hen house even though it can only carry away one bird—soon made it the arch villain of the coun­try­side. henry Viii’s 12d bounty on the fox il­lus­trates whata ma­jor threat it was per­ceived to be.

My real un­der­stand­ing of foxes be­gan at the age of 16, when i adopted a cub. the tiny vixen was still in her black birth­day suit, timid glances from her smoky blue eyes be­ly­ing her vul­ner­a­bil­ity. At first, she didn’t need much at­ten­tion—foxes are born sur­vivors. Feed­ing her on sloppy dog food and milk was not a prob­lem, but i would sleep with my hand in the fox’s bed so the cub could suck my fin­gers for com­fort. Luck­ily, i had un­der­stand­ing par­ents.

Rusty lived along­side our Jack Rus­sell ter­rier, tom, and be­came quite tame, but there was al­ways a wild edge. i was amazed that tom tol­er­ated the in­ter­loper, as he was a vet­eran killer of all things feath­ered and furry, but they would roll on the car­pet to­gether and then, in a split sec­ond, run the ‘wall of death’ around the liv­ing room.

Soon, i could take Rusty out for walks on a lead, but she was ner­vous around strangers. if she did bite, which wasn’t of­ten, i would bleed. the wild gene re­mained, es­pe­cially when it came to food, which was bolted as if it were her last meal or be taken off to be eaten in seclu­sion.

At night, Rusty went into an old chicken run (mi­nus the chick­ens). All was well un­til she was about 12 weeks old; i heard a hell of a com­mo­tion and rushed out to see tom and Rusty in head-to-head com­bat un­der the gar­den shed. Both pro­tag­o­nists had re­verted to type, but

‘Rey­nard is en­gross­ing, en­chant­ing and en­thralling

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