Out­foxed

Matt Gaw is hop­ing for a glimpse of the elu­sive red fox

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

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.

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