ROUGH LIFE As many as eight out of ten young foxes will fail to see out their first winter.
Country Sights and Sounds
I’m really getting into this foraging thing. The very idea of free food is nice, although when everything is factored in it isn’t exactly free. In fact, gleaning from nature probably costs a great deal more in time, energy and resources than does popping down to the shop. And as James likes to remind me, if only I were to pull my finger out and get my paperwork finished I should be a good deal better off and wouldn’t need to go picking at leaves and searching for berries.
But it’s so nice to be out in the woods, scuffling through crisp leaves with the blue of the lake and green hills beyond, with blackberries at the woodland edge and an increasing harvest of tasty fungi vying for attention.
I had just discovered a bunch of ‘charcoal burners’, a tasty and sometimes prolific type of mushroom, and was busy packing the best into my basket when a pair of jays began kicking up a rumpus nearby. What was disturbing them?
A hare, a fine big specimen with an unusually dark, almost black face, came loping through the trees, following a zigzag course and pausing here and there to sit tall and look around. He spied me then, and sat rock still with his eye upon me.
The jays were still some distance off. It was evidently neither the hare nor I that had them on edge.
The sound of the birds came and went, then they returned with a more excited chatter as a ruddy shadow slipped through the trees before tracking back in the opposite direction. A few seconds later the owner and creator of that shadow hurried into the open; long and lean, this was a typically gangly adolescent fox cub.
His russet coat was rather dull, his back legs far too long, the white-tipped tail more rat than fox-like. That he was on the hunt for the hare was obvious, but as he kept losing the trail and had to scent around repeatedly there was very little chance he was going to get near.
He was completely engrossed and this, together with his inexperience, brought him almost within touching distance. When he lifted his head and saw me there was no immediate fear in his eye. He stood motionless. We both gazed, one upon the other, until I spoke.
And that was that. He was gone, with the jays hot on his heels and scolding every step of the way.
I gathered my mushrooms and made it home by nightfall. These autumn evenings are so pleasant. The nights have been mild enough to sit outside, albeit with a heavy sweater. Insects smatter their wings at the light and a bat flits from the darkness to snatch away their lives. From beyond the trees comes the sound of snipe above the fen, the shriek of a night-flying heron and the far-off cry of another lost fox cub.
Why are they so late leaving home this year? Perhaps the cool summer encouraged the vixen to be more tolerant than usual. We would normally hear them crying in July, after they either wander off alone or the adults lead them into the woods and abandon them to look after themselves. It’s a rough enough life if you happen to be a fox. As many as eight out of ten will fail to see out their first winter, especially in areas where they are hunted or if the weather happens to be severe. The average life span of the hardy few is only three or four years.
The plight of that lost and lonely creature crying into the night moved me to leave food in the garden while I cooked my own supper. Fresh wild mushrooms on fried bread, washed down with a glass or two of cider – who could ask for more?
Sleep came. At four in the morning I woke with a sudden and most unusual clarity of mind, with my stomach churning like a washing machine. My first thought was that feast of fungus I’d enjoyed a few hours earlier. What if something untoward had made its way into the pan? But I knew it hadn’t. There came a shrill cry outside the window. The fox.
There was silence, then the automatic light switched itself on. I could imagine my guest pleased with his find and wanted to go and see.
There’d be work when it got light. Or foraging.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.