January is the month of the fox. As we head back to work in the new year, despite the passing of the winter solstice last month days are still short we often find ourselves commuting in the dark. A flash of movement in the headlights, a brief encounter on the evening dog-walk or trip to the local take-away. In urban areas, foxes are bold; sunbathing on shed roofs in quiet overgrown gardens, raiding restaurant bins for edible scraps. In the countryside the fox behaves like a different beast altogether, shy and secretive, a creature of the shadows of hedgerows and glimpses in the lane at night.
In winter however, urban and country fox alike have the same thing on their minds – mating.
Your first time hearing the screaming call of a vixen (female fox) in the middle of the night can be a chilling experience. The sound has been likened to that of a human scream, and cuts sharply through the cold night air. Sound travels better on crisp moonlight nights, and you may hear the vixens’ call answered by the repeated short bark of the dog fox. Late December through to early February is the main annual mating season for foxes, meaning the resulting cubs are born in early spring. Foxes may excavate their own underground homes known as earths, but being opportunistic they often expand old rabbit burrows, or make use of the cavity beneath a garden shed. This canny adaptability serves the fox well, and applies to more than just their choice of residence. Being an unfussy eater gives you a great advantage when it comes to fitting in in a wide range of habitats, and the fox, although principally a carnivore, will have a broad diet. Small mammals such as rodents are high on the menu, but foxes will also take birds eggs, lizards, small birds, worms and beetles, even fruit and berries.
In Britain, annual road casualties are estimated to account for 100,000 foxes*source; and on average over half of cubs born will not reach adulthood.
Since Wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK in the 16th century, foxes remain our only wild member of the dog family. As with our domestic dogs (and indeed wolves) humans have a long complex history with the fox. Attitudes toward foxes have changed dramatically over the decades, but some perceptions are hard to shift. Cunning, sly, trickster… the fox has a challenging reputation, perhaps due to its intelligence and secretive lifestyle, and its ability to outwit us. Any keeper of chickens will know that foxes may well take advantage if you make it easy for them, and sheep farmers keep a wary eye on newborn lambs. Recently, the fox’s boldness and habituation to humans in urban areas has got it into trouble; headlines about foxes ‘attacking’ babies make sensational newspaper sales.
Largely however, attitudes are changing towards the fox. The traditional countryside practice of hunting foxes with packs of hounds has been illegal (but admittedly not entirely absent) since 2004, although the steady hand of a marksman is still needed in certain cases to maintain a balance in our vastly altered ecosystem and manmade landscape. Not all have warmed to the fox, but the willingness of this wild creature to connect with us in even the greyest of city hearts, brings joy to many who revel in watching them. Whether feeding foxes in back gardens is in the long term interest of the species is up for discussion, there’s no doubt that this contact with nature fulfils a vital need in the distanced lives of many people.
The countryside around my home is gamekeeping country; hedgerows and field margins throng with pheasants in the latter half of the year, their hiccuping dusk calls creating a cacophony at the end of short winter days. The fox is not in favour here.
A narrow line of footprint in mud, rimmed with frost, a scattering of feathers bitten at the quill. My foxes are a few staccato barks on a long dark January night.