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
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