Foxing Without Foxes

The call came through in the middle of last week. A panicky voicemail left on my mobile  by one of the estate workers. The landowner had asked him to call me. “Ian, can you call me back. We have a fox problem and the peacocks have chicks. We need the foxes gone!”

We’re talking a 1000 acre estate here, with plenty of places for Charlie to hide away and cause mischief. Yet I pride myself in my intimate knowledge of the land and knowing where fox dens exist and when they are ‘occupied’. On my regular patrols of the estate, I identify newly thrown dens and know how to distinguish between these and the new setts dug by the burgeoning badger population. Foxes often like to take the lazy option and will often hijack an old sett. Old Brock is a tidy housekeeper so it’s easy to spot vulpine occupation. Foxes leaves hell’n all mess around their holes … scats, wings and bones.  The newly-thrown earth dug by either mammal usually has prints to help identify the user.

I made the return call and (as expected) heard of an apocalyptic invasion of fox-cubs. Further questioning revealed there seemed to be three. There had been five apparently, but the deer stalker had culled two in passing. They hadn’t killed any peacocks yet but were playing openly during daylight hours around the Old Hall … where the peacocks reside. Cubs in the first week of August are not ‘cubs’. They are juveniles, still dependent on their mother for protein and more importantly, schooling. You will all be familiar with that old adage about the ‘penny dropping’?  I had shot a prowling vixen a month earlier in the wood beneath the Old Hall. A scrawny old female that I had crossed paths with for three years, always with an air rifle in my hands. On the day in question she had sauntered past arrogantly, throwing me a glance. Unfortunately for her I was carrying my .17HMR. A quick squeak from me, a pause from her and our casual meetings ended for good. I had no idea that she might have a litter nearby.

That there was a litter and that it must have survived being orphaned seemed obvious now, with this latest intelligence. At the time of the phone call, I was working and couldn’t just drop everything to deal with the issue. The following evening I spent a few hours looking for signs of the trio, all around the Old Hall and in the wood below. I was employing a fox-squeaker randomly, but not over-using it (which has a diverse effect). I found two re-opened dens and plenty of fox scat, though none fresh. By ‘fresh’ I mean less than two days old. The droppings were dry but black and tarry. I was relieved (for the peacocks). The youngsters hadn’t learnt to hunt yet. In fact, without their mother, they would now have to learn to survive the hard way. I pulled some of the scats apart with twigs, which revealed blackberry pips, slug slime and beetle carapace. No fur or feather.

I spent the next two evenings and all weekend monitoring the two dens and looking wider for the surviving cubs, with no success. No fresh scats, no musk around the dens and no sign of any predatory kills. The deaths of their siblings may well have made them flee the area but I have a sneaking feeling that the threat isn’t over yet.

You can go ‘foxing’ but sometimes, no matter how good your fieldcraft skills are, you can remain “out-foxed”!

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2020