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NATURE A young fox on the prowl

Outdoor Living
An unexpected dawn intruder

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

Annies Shore, Lough Carra, 8am. So much for first light! I had awoken alright, but the greyness of the morning sky together with a decidedly fresh breeze had prevented me from throwing off those covers. So I lay there neither asleep nor awake, half-listening to the piercing cries of waterfowl and the soft hush of the wind in the trees, until the clock reached its cold arms around as far as the eight. Eight o’ the clock! This I had not intended.
I scurried then, gulping at my coffee while it was still too hot and heading for the boat nursing a scalded tongue within the jowl of my cheek. The starlings were long gone from their roost at that stage. I had watched them come in last night and had wondered at their unrest. Down they had come, into the dense reeds where they sleep each night, but instead of settling quickly they took to the air again as a seething mass, their multitude appearing as smoke against the trees, the sound of thousands of flurrying wings as distant thunder. They did this time after time, until it was nearly dark, before finding their peace.
I had waded in as deep as I dared in order to get as close as possible, sure that a predator must be in their midst. A series of bounding splashes confirmed this - but what was it? A mink; that was the obvious answer. Yet the sound was too great; that of an animal running through the water rather than swimming in it.
A fox then, and most likely one of this season’s young cubs not long evicted from the family home. A week or so either side of midsummer’s eve we hear them crying in the woods, an eerie, lost sound, as they call for parental comfort. They call in vain. The dog fox never had much to do with his offspring, apart from dropping a bit of food off at the earth now and again if he had a surplus, and now they are grown even the vixen will lose her maternal instincts and be glad to see the back of her increasingly hungry offspring. They must learn to provide for themselves. This character in the reed bed will do well to catch a starling.
This morning I looked in the soft mud at the water’s edge and found, among the meandering trails left by mallard and moorhen, the small, round footprints of last night’s visitor. It was a fox alright, rather a small one, and quite probably very hungry. We might leave a few scraps of food out on the mud, not that we want to encourage him to stay, but just in order to observe him.
There were other footprints there as well, even smaller and rounder, with a light and partly broken trail between and behind, this having been made by a heavy tail. There can be no mistaking these. Otter cubs. The tracks went as far the deep water at the end of the reeds and led off where I could not follow. I stood and peered as well as I could into the dense forest of green and gold, from where came a series of slight mewing cries, half whistle, half squeak, which told me the otters were there even now.
I would have stayed longer, but already had considerable catching up to do. Going home I met an angler who told me more about the fox. He had seen it running over the mud with an adult coot hot on its heels. Both fox and bird had disappeared into the reeds, and reappeared less than a minute later in the same order, though this time with a young coot held firmly in the jaws of the fox.
I would liked to have seen that for myself. Could that young fox also be responsible for the loss of two out of the six cygnets our swans brought off their nest a week ago, and likewise for the disappearance of so many ducklings? It had looked to be a better breeding season for the waterfowl, which have suffered heavy losses for many years. We would rather see birds on the water than have a fox skulking in the undergrowth, yet both must make a living somehow.