Matt Gaw is hoping for a glimpse of the elusive red fox
IT is over 12 months since I last saw the foxes here. A cub that fixed me with orange eyes, ears pricked in perfect triangles almost too big for her head, before disappearing back down a path that curves into woodland. That must have been in late spring.
I watched the foxes at Nowton Park, or at least tried to, for a whole year. Crouched in scrub and bushes, I patiently waited for the orange bloom of dawn or the gathering dark, those between times when foxes tend to emerge. I had heard gekkering squabbles, snippy alarm calls and the blood-curdling, baby-murdering call to mate. I saw the dog fox hunt, his cat-like slope viewed through a night vision monocular that turned the world green and grainy. I staked out the natal den for days, falling asleep in bramble and nettle patches. I found kills and caches, a pigeon wing waving sadly from the side of a path, it’s body half-buried. I followed trails and runs, inspected their scat, looked for the rime of fur left under fences that suggested a fox regularly passed through. I wanted to understand them, their habits, their patterns of movement, how they interacted with each other. I wanted to be a part of a world, a landscape of scents, signs and smeuse, that overlapped my own.
I travelled further afield to see more urban foxes with wildlife photographer Jamie Hall, watching them creep from the city’s shadows as the lights in homes winked off, slipping through car parks and streets, even running across bungalow roofs.
But it was always the foxes at Nowton Park I returned to, to the vixen whose yip I could recognise anywhere and the dog with his broad head and hint of blackness to his brush. In the end though, it was my human world that took over. Family, work and writing projects that involved travelling far away from the fox-stalked acres of the park. My habits no longer meshed with theirs.
Then, last week, as I was driving home past the park, I saw a fox. Young, perhaps from a new litter, he skittered from the roadside and into the cover of darkness. I could feel the pull once again.
I arrive at Nowton a good hour before sunset to find the right spot, walking across paths of chipped bark, through trees that are both native and exotic. Cherry, redwood. There has been a storm today and the woods are heavy with fragrance, the air scented with pine and the soft pepper of wet nettles. The sky is washed out from the rain, the lightest of blackbird egg blues.
There is no sign of foxes at either of the natal dens. No footprint or bones. No twisted knot of scat. I sniff again. No musky sweetness. I decide to go to a place where I know the dog fox patrolled, putting down a tarp on knee-high grass and lying on my front. I read a book while I wait for the runners and dog-walkers to leave. Each one re-sets the fox clock, I know he will stay holed up for an hour or so after the last one has padded past. He is cautious, a memory of
Each one re-sets the fox clock, I know he will stay holed up for an hour or so after the last one has padded past
cruel persecution ingrained in a species. By half-eight the light fuzzes like an old TV, hazy and low, flickering with flies and mosquito. The sky darkens with rooks before the sun really starts to dip. They fly in loose bands above me, black as bonfire smuts, heading to the line of lime trees that leads up from the park’s entrance to the crumbling brick wall of the nursery. The sky pinkens at the edges, like a pinched cheek. The few clouds high and thin, like feathered icing, blue as cigarette smoke. A blackbird rattles out an alarm call and a female tawny makes the first enquiring call of the evening. Kewick. Kewick. The grass stands still. Nothing moves or rustles, it’s as if the world has stopped spinning.
There’s a crack in the wood behind me. A fat bottomed pigeon maybe, getting comfortable, its blown milk bottle calls replaced by the ragged, sawing cries of yet more corvid. It’s a voice that slashes through the heat of summer and the brittle ice of winter. I watch them heading over, their wing flaps slow, almost out of time with the speed at which they are travelling. Oily arrows with bills of whittled bone.
The pink of the sky spreads, a slow blush to violet and then darker, aubergine, the midnight sea. The tarp is damp with dew. To the east, Venus has risen. He should be here by now. I check my watch.
Then I hear him. A swallowed bark coming from behind the wood, where rabbits zig-zag through the rough grass with scuts of burning white that bob like flash lights. He must have changed his route. I’ve been outfoxed again.