Fantastic Mr Fox

PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

Red fox in its natural surroundings

Red fox in its natural surroundings

This wily animal has adapted superbly to Britain's urban environments, and if you look hard enough you can spot them in some of the most built-up areas of the region WORDS AND PICTURES BYANN AND STEVE TOON

On a dark January night deep in the Northumbrian countryside an unearthly scream rends the still air. It could be the poor tortured victim of some past heinous violence or the ghost, perhaps, of some cruelly despatched wretch, butchered by Celtic raiders. Or perhaps it's the decapitated horseman, reputed to drive a carriage drawn by headless horses along a secret passageway under the North Tyne, linking the remains of Dally and Tarset castles. It's a blood-curdling yell that seems to speak of untold pain, but the truth is very different. For in reality we're listening to a love song, the serenade of an amorous dog fox in search of a vixen. Now is prime time to hear the fox's eerie cry of romance. For much of the year foxes keep a low profile, keen to avoid the attentions of farmers and gamekeepers. But come January and the fox's shyness vanishes. It's the mating season and, if you're a fox, that means advertising your availability, loudly. When we lived in South East London, foxes denned in our back garden, and we'd regularly meet the fearless old dog fox patrolling the pavement, often in broad daylight. Living next door to foxes was a mixed blessing, offering fascinating glimpses of their lives, but at a price - sleepless winter nights listening to their courting, fox scats deposited prominently around the lawn, the pungent, acrid aroma of fox urine perfuming the drive, rubbish from ransacked dustbins scattered everywhere, and shrubs shredded by teething cubs We were reminded of our former neighbours recently when we watched a fine-looking dog fox trotting down the centre of Edinburgh's North Bridge Street, apparently oblivious to the Friday evening rush hour all around him. Foxes have adapted superbly to Britain's urban environments and, if you look hard enough, you can spot them in some of the most built-up areas of the North East. Out in the wilds of Northumberland and County Durham they are more elusive. We'll occasionally catch a glimpse of one trotting across a distant field, but we see more as road kills. If you do see one this month it will be sporting a fine winter coat. Next month it will start to lose condition and by April will be well into its spring moult, and looking rather tatty. It will be late October before the coat is fully regrown, dressed once more for the cold months ahead. You might be lucky enough to see a pair of foxes. For most of the year foxes are solitary hunters but, during the mating season, a courting couple can hunt together for up to three weeks. Aside from hunting, foxes are very social animals, living in groups which typically include a dog fox, a vixen, cubs in spring, and sometimes one or two of last year's litter. Only the dominant ('alpha') vixen will usually produce young. Cubs are born blind and deaf and remain hidden in the earth for several weeks but by late April or early May you may see them in the open. By the end of the summer the cubs will be independent enough to leave to find their own territory, but some remain
with their parents and help rear the next year's litter. Adult foxes are usually monogamous and, although they may separate in autumn once their cubs have become independent, they will find one another again for the next mating season. So, when you hear that eerie cry in the middle of a January night, you could be listening to a young fox looking for a first date or an older animal seeking to rekindle an old flame. Romance may be in the air for foxes, but there's no love lost in their relationship with farmers. Generations of sheep farmers have attempted to control fox numbers through trapping, poisoning, shooting, and, of course, hunting with hounds. But fox hunting is about a lot more than pest control and famous old hunt, such as the Braes of Derwent, the Percy, and the College Valley, have become important parts of the social fabric of the North East countryside. While the Hunting Act has altered the nature of fox hunting and the law now only allows two hounds to be used to flush foxes to guns, hunts have adapted to survive. Our local hunt, the North Tyne, is thriving, according to whipper-in Robert Little. So too is the local fox population. Robert, who knows the location of pretty much every fox earth hereabouts, recently counted a dozen animals flushed from a single copse of trees. Some hunts have reported reduced fox numbers since the law changed, but there's not yet any real, reliable evidence of the legislation's impact on the fox population, locally or nationally. Hunting is only one factor among many that control annual fluctuations in fox numbers - a harsh winter, an outbreak of disease or a drop in the rodent population could all have a much more significant impact. Meanwhile, on Northumberland's Otterburn moors a major research project led by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has been looking at whether controlling numbers of predators, particularly foxes and crows, makes a significant difference to the nesting success of upland birds. Patches of heather moorland were managed under different regimes, with and without predator control. Results are still being collated but, according to researcher Dr Kathy Fletcher: 'The overall trend is that where there is predator removal, the breeding success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover is about three times better.' So it's not only farmers and poultry keepers who have it in for the wily fox - even some conservationists are keen to see fox numbers controlled. But for ourselves, we can't help feeling a sneaking admiration for this great survivor, an animal so adaptable that it has become the most widespread carnivore on earth. And when next our sleep is disturbed by the dog fox's eerie nocturnal cry, we'll silently wish this canine Casanova good luck in his amorous adventures.

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