Wildlife: The summer of the fox

Visiting dog fox

Visiting dog fox - Credit: Archant

A chance visit to an allotment alters Paul Hobson’s photographic course of action for the year

Fox cub

Fox cub - Credit: Archant

It is strange how a five second decision can change the course of a whole month. Every year I set out a plan of what I hope to photograph. Since wildlife is rarely as cooperative as I would like, the plan could at best be described as flexible.

This year foxes did not feature on my agenda – although I still feed them every night in my garden. However, one evening my partner’s sister had called round for tea and showed us a delightful video clip she had taken on her phone of the fox cubs at her place of work. I must admit she had mentioned them before, but for some reason I had dismissed the possibility of working with them. The video changed all that. So the following morning I arrived early and spent a couple of hours watching and photographing five cubs. They were about three weeks old and quite precocious. Unfortunately though, the early morning light was not good. The den was under a big tree and the sun, when it did get round the corner of a large building, cast huge black shadows across the whole area. Also, anyone going to work early could see me, and I didn’t want to attract attention to the den.

So, feeling rather disappointed, I drove home. As I went past my local allotments I made a snap decision to stop and look from the car down one of the long lanes that bisects the area. Within five minutes a fox cub, shortly after followed by another, strode confidently out onto the path and sat down. It was obvious that they had an earth somewhere close by and were using the paths to move around the area. That simple, quick decision changed the whole of my photography plan for the next month.

The following morning I set off with a simple bag hide (a camouflage cloth really), draped over me and I lay down with my camera tucked into the base of the hedge that ran down the side of the path. I didn’t have to wait long before three cubs showed up and I spent an amazing hour photographing them. They knew I was there so I eventually abandoned the bag hide and simply lay in view. They would glance at me for a second every now and then but as long as I didn’t make any noise or flap my arms about they were comfortable with my presence.

Fox cub

Fox cub - Credit: Archant

For the next month I tried different positions around the vicinity of the earth to create a set of images I was happy with. After a week I was convinced there were only three pups. Each morning I fed them with a tin of dog food and a few dog biscuits. (I had checked with the allotment society that they were happy with me doing this.) One morning I was about 30 metres from the earth round a corner waiting to see if any pups would turn up. One did, then another and then another. I thought this was the full litter but to my amazement two more showed up. So I had five cubs all snaffling up the dog food. Over the month I only ever saw all five cubs together twice, which probably meant that the biggest two didn’t always sleep in the earth but had matured to the stage where they were a little bit more independent.

During my month of photography I got to know a number of the allotmenteers. On the whole their reactions to the foxes were incredibly supportive. One of the ladies kept chickens and it never crossed her mind to try to get rid of or deter them, yet she had lost the odd chicken a few years before. She loved the foxes, would watch them regularly and felt that if a fox did get a chicken it was her fault for not making the chicken run secure enough. Oddly some allotmenteers didn’t even know there were foxes present. On one occasion I was explaining to one where they were and a cub simply popped up and trotted across the path!

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Saying this, not all the gardeners liked my furry friends. The gentleman who ran the allotment that had the earth in was fed up with them. They had made their den under his shed and if you were quiet you could hear them scrapping away and rattling the tin floor. As far as I could see this might have been what he was objecting to. However, the smell from the earth as the weather warmed up was not one of aromatic herbs! The fox cubs also romped around the allotments near to their earth every morning and dug many exploratory holes so it is understandable that not every allotmenteer became a huge fox fan. Most of the gardeners, though, saw the foxes as a benefit because they believed they kept the rabbit and rat populations in check. Whilst rats are not everyone’s favourite they don’t really cause too many problems but a hungry bunny in a patch of lush vegetables can cause havoc in one night!

Over the month I had a fantastic time. I photographed virtually every morning unless it was raining heavily. I seldom saw the mother, although once I was lying down waiting for the cubs and, glancing over my shoulder to look back up the lane, I saw her trotting down towards me. She walked right up and sniffed my boot but clearly had no idea I was there as I had frozen. The sniff told her all was not right and she trotted off. On another occasion I was watching three cubs working through the dog food when they shot off. A few seconds later a big dog fox strolled up and finished off the dog food right in front of me. I was fairly sure this was not the father. He kept glancing to where the earth was but never went towards it. Later, as I left the allotments I saw two foxes chasing one another. The father seeing off the interloper perhaps?

Fox cub

Fox cub - Credit: Archant

The cubs are now quite big and becoming independent. I am not sure when their mother will drive them away but as the summer progresses I will try to follow the fortunes of my allotment foxes. Photographic plans are great, but in this case things turned out all the better for allowing myself a bit of leeway.

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