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NATURE To the fox’s lair

Outdoor Living

To the fox’s lair

John Shelley

A young fox emerged from the brambles, waddling with comical grace on overlong legs, its tufted baby-coat gleaming red-brown in the afternoon sun, trotting back and forth over the pasture, looking for earthworms and beetles.
A hen pheasant was also in the field, she with her young brood. The chicks are still small. Perhaps she hatched a second clutch of eggs; I think they were more likely a replacement after the originals were lost to the appetite of another of the fox family.
Perhaps I am prejudiced. A hedgehog, which we like and admire, will take any eggs or young birds that it might find, as will crows, which we distrust, and rats, which we detest. Despite the fact that foxes are considered something of a local scourge, the intricate mix of immature woodland, absolute wilderness and agricultural land gives them plenty of choice territory and all they need in the way of food, so they rarely give us any trouble even if there are a lot of them.
We are even excited to see them. The pheasant was not. She was most unhappy to be sharing her plot with the fox. She gave a series of peculiar whistling calls which I had never heard before, warning her offspring to lie low and keep their heads down, and then gave a marvellous display of bravery, going to meet the fox face to face, head up and feathers fluffed to make herself look larger and perhaps even intimidating.
The fox gave her no heed, but continued coursing the ground. Let her get close enough, I thought; then we shall see feathers fly.
She was brave and bold. We had to admire her courage as she did her best to lead him away from her little ones, trying to drive him away one moment and feigning injury the next. A trio of magpies arrived on the scene, scolding loudly, telling the world that a fox was at large. It wasn’t long before they spotted us too, and changed their tone.
The fox left at a trot, leaving us with the impression that he understood their language well. He went back into the brambles and, in the company of those chattering magpies, followed the tree line up and over the hill.
When we looked for the pheasant she was nowhere to be seen. We walked the ground where we had seen her last and eventually found ourselves examining the trail the fox had left, which was easily seen in the short grass.
We followed, not with any great purpose in mind, merely because we were able. Through the trees we went, under a loose-slung strand of barbed wire, by the way of a cattle-made gap in a derelict hedgerow, when we found ourselves standing in an old meadow where field mushrooms grew underfoot and an ancient, matriarchal cow with wizened features and stumps for horns looked upon us with astonishment, as if we were the first humans she had seen for years.
In the far corner of her field we found the fox trail once more, this time as a well-used thoroughfare. Beneath the predominate scent of fox something else reached our nostrils, something enticingly sweet.
We had stumbled upon a long-forgotten orchard, where the trees, though few in number, grew large and luxuriant and were festooned with immature fruit, while the ground beneath their crooked boughs was littered with windblown apples. Most of these were half eaten by thrushes, and half of what were left were gently fermenting, filling the air with that great sweetness.
The largest tree had been tipped onto its side years ago by a great westerly wind (it lay with its top to the east) but it had by no means given up. Rather, it seemed to have redoubled its efforts, for I think I never saw a tree bearing so much fruit.
I looked around, hoping to find a plum tree, but in vain. Some of these old orchards contain varieties of fruit that are no longer common but that are certainly worth rediscovering. At home we have less than a dozen types of apple. There are, or have been, several thousand, each with its own attributes. Oh, to have time to find some of these forgotten gems!
The far end of the orchard was bounded by a wall of stone. The wall led to a cottage; four walls and a window which once looked out to the east. Now it was overgrown, with branches of elder growing in and out of the stonework, Hart’s-tongue ferns decorating the walls, bramble and ivy in place of sod and slate.
And in a dark and mossy corner a subtle smell, the unmistakable smell of fox, the sole inhabitant of this secret garden.

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