Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Fallen from grace

A few nights ago we were woken by the pained screeches and howls of two foxes getting it on somewhere very close to the house, until recently one of the less notable sounds of suburban life. On this occasion I would not be surprised if a few of our neighbours had got up and checked that they had locked the back door and shut all the downstairs windows.

The fox has is no longer seen as the charming redhead that you help out over the winter with the odd bowl of cat food. Tabloid headlines have put Mr. Fox into the same category as the paedophile. He is no longer fantastic. A mother found a fox mauling her twin baby girls in their nursery after it entered her north London home through patio doors left open on a hot night. Since then the local council has set traps in the garden of the house and destroyed three foxes caught there subsequently.

A number of Londoners, among them the mayor, Boris Johnson, have come forward to declare that foxes are vermin, a nuisance and now, a potential danger. The surprising thing is that just as many have stood up for the fox, pointing out that London and its suburbs have become a free food fest for vermin of every kind. It is not just the kind hearted residents of the city who are to blame. Patrons of take away food establishments do not feel the need to dispose of whatever they have left over responsibly, dumping it anywhere; proprietors leave bags of rubbish in the street long before collections are due because the fines are never big enough to put them off. Add to that the introduction of fortnightly rubbish collections for reasons of economy and it is hardly surprising that the fox and the rat have flourished.

In spite of what has happened I am quite happy to see foxes in our garden. If we keep the doors closed on hot evenings it is because we are worried about the two-legged variety of visitor, the burgling kind. I heard the eerie shriek of a fox for the first time in the suburbs, believing at first that it was a woman’s screams. Then it almost sent me into orbit but I now know that one of nature’s charmers is about. And I have been charmed by the fox. The sight of cubs tumbling over each other on the lawn, of an adult sunbathing on the compost bin, of another loping purposefully along the street ahead of me, I still regard these moments as special, magical. If those strange and dangerous eyes have once looked back into yours from a safe distance they are hard to resist. For those as divorced from wild nature as some town dwellers are it must be hard to resist trying to turn such a creature into a friend with the help of frozen chicken.

My perspective had to change once we became cat owners, not actively discouraging them but the occasional bowls of cat food stopped (I once economised by providing cheap dog food and was treated to the sight of a fox having a sniff and then walking away from it. Everything in its demeanour said “You expect me to eat this?”). We do leave out bowls of water, shallow enough to prevent a hedgehog drowning or tilted to allow an easy escape, that double as a lido for young starlings. I began to do this after seeing a desperately hot and exhausted fox take a rest on the patio. It was too frightened to let me put water out for it and ran off.

There was one hairy moment when I glanced out of the kitchen and saw a large fox standing stock still on the lawn with our beloved moggie right next to it. To my amazement the fox ignored Jones as he began to lie down next to it in a submissive gesture, the one that told us that he was due for a tummy rub. By this time my hand had rattled the doorknob and the fox departed in a hurry. Jones didn’t look too unhappy to see me but he didn’t seem frightened either and it has led me to wonder what sort of relationship he had with foxes in his early life as a stray. Most cats don’t win the argument. Nevertheless, when I found three young ones gazing at me expectantly through the French windows one Sunday morning I thought of Jones, at that moment snoring under the duvet, and resisted the temptation to slip them a dish of Felix.

I don’t blame foxes in any way for the problems they cause. They are fulfilling their role in the ecology, scavenging and cleaning up after everyone else and it is not their fault that we provide them with so much work. However I believe that for some the feeding of foxes has more to do with a need to be loved by an outlaw than a genuine desire to help wildlife. We have forgotten that this adaptable survivor has been charming humans for centuries. Very few animals have engaged the attentions of artists, writers and poets in the way that the fox has. Brer Fox, bold Reynard, Disney’s Robin Hood, Beatrix Potter‘s “foxy-whiskered gentleman“ and The Tod in “The Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams, from Aesop’s Fables to Roald Dahl it has been recognised as cunning, sly, deceitful - the Loki of British wildlife. Most recently the fox has been equated with the scheming young women drawn to celebrities in the video for Wiley’s “Wearing my Rolex”.

Perhaps those living within the town walls would be slower to defend the fox if their livelihoods depended on it. The playfulness that leaves our back garden strewn with shoes, rubber ducks and sparkly Christmas baubles is the same as that which leaves a hen coop in a bloody and distressing state. There are those, parents in particular, who have come to understand that a patio covered in faeces is a high price to pay for a glimpse of something wild.

It is time for the authorities, in consultation with local wildlife trusts, to take a rational and sensitive approach to the urban fox, educating the public in the best way to interact with it and acting in all our best interests. A blanket approach which treats all foxes in the same way would be inappropriate, what we need is a fox czar.

The recent incident really worries me. I fear that it will be used by politicians to gain votes by hitting an easy target rather than tackling obvious litter problems and dangerous dogs that Londoners fall victim to every day. Another concern is that the tabloid reaction to it will give permission to thugs to torture and kill foxes. They will use the same dogs that I worry about to carry out this task and then celebrate with a take away. One of the saddest interviews I heard following the attack was with a teenager who described the foxes in her area as scruffy, clearly unaware that sarcoptic mange causes these animals real misery - it isn’t because they are too lazy to groom themselves. Ignorance of this sort leaves the door open to cruelty.

Unfortunately, thugs on the other side of the argument have also made their feelings known online and the family in question have been given police protection. I have no doubts about the truth of what happened and wonder how those who care so passionately about animals in general can be this unfeeling towards the human kind.

I wonder if, by treating the urban fox in this way, we have worn away some of the mystery that drew us to it in the first place. As a result of our affection it has become commonplace and ordinary. We have lost our innocence having denied it the dignity due to it and our fall from grace is all the harder for it.



  1. Great piece. Nice too see a balanced, caring, reasoned and informed take on this issue for a change.

  2. Excellent piece. It sounds like our collective cats adopt much the same attitude to the foxes with whom they share a garden -- mostly ignoring one another unless one side does something foolish...