It’s been noisy in the garden during the last few nights, the peace disturbed by the gruff bark of a dog fox and the answering screech of a female. The result of these romantic assignations might well be a bundle of cubs in the spring, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll spot them. Although I regularly hear foxes, and find their droppings on the grass, I’ve yet to actually see one in the garden.
According to recent research, we’re more likely to see a fox in an urban environment than here in the countryside. Having witnessed one strolling through a Waitrose car park in broad daylight, it seems to be true.
A few years ago, when living in the Surrey suburbs, we had a family of foxes living at the bottom of our garden in a neglected scrap of woodland behind the compost heap. They’d scraped out a den beneath a pile of tree prunings and dry leaves, which despite its proximity to the house, provided a safe and secluded home which even our inquisitive collie, Fergus, couldn’t reach. Come nightfall, with Fergus confined to the house, the foxes would emerge into the garden, even venturing close to the French windows to peer inside. We never fed them, but coexisted well enough.
They are omnivorous, and while rural territory may offer rabbits and voles, a suburban garden provides pigeons, insects and worms. Irritating as it was to see them dig my tulip bulbs from a frozen flower bed, the foxes were forgiven when they polished off the rats overwintering in the compost. Seeing three cubs tussle for a plastic flower pot on the snowy lawn was a delight.
One summer, my young son and nephew were playing football in the garden, growing increasingly frustrated with the dog who was streaking back and forth across the ‘pitch’, barking at the top of his lungs. Getting no interest from the soccer-mad boys, Fergus tried another tack, barking outside the back door until I appeared. In the best tradition of Lassie struggling to make a nice-but-dim human understand that there was an emergency, he herded me, still barking, across the lawn to the thick bank of rhododendrons. His front half disappeared into the shrubbery, but the back half remained outside, tail wagging furiously. The barking stopped.
I peered into the gloom but couldn’t see anything. Stooping beneath low-hanging branches I ventured forward and was greeted by an angry hiss. It was a fox cub, apparently healthy and unharmed, but somehow it had got its head stuck in the fence. The plastic-coated wire was loose enough that it wasn’t hurting the cub, but too tight for the animal to get free. I took a step back and the cub sat down, watching me expectantly.
“You should call the RSPCA,” one of the boys piped up
“Tell them to bring wire-cutters,” instructed the other one.
A charming young woman from the RSPCA was there within half an hour, bringing a cat-carrier and a sturdy pair of gauntlets – but minus the wire-cutters. Luckily, the next-door neighbour whose garden we invaded to get closer to the fox, had a shed full of tools, so the five of us set off to the rescue. With its fluffy red coat and over-sized ears, the cub was as appealing as a puppy, but its warning hiss and bared teeth were a reminder that this was an unpredictable wild animal. Crawling through the rhododendrons and keeping the fox at arms’ length, our RSPCA heroine made a first snip to the wire around the cub’s neck. That was all it took. The cub wriggled free and ran off through the bushes to the safety of its parents and the den.