The fox is our friend, a beautiful creature that needs protection. The fox is our enemy, a vicious pest that needs to be controlled. Whichever you believe, the fox is about to die.
Bruce Lindsay-Smith stares through his infra-red nightscope at a vixen. The laser beam projected from the barrel of his rifle finds the bridge of her nose, right between the eyes. The hunter squeezes the trigger but none of the people asleep in the neighbouring houses of North London hear the silenced shot. The fox falls to the ground, killed instantly by the bullet to her brain.
In her jaws is a scrap of raw chicken that was laid as bait. In a moment another fox will come through the same narrow gap in the fence and steal it. Then that animal will also be shot.
Four vixens and two dog foxes will die in the grounds of a school where they have been scavenging among bins, defecating and urinating on play equipment and chewing toys. The school has hired this professional fox hunter to protect its health and safety record, not to mention the pupils from the chance of disease.
But the hunter is also the hunted. Animal rights campaigners are bombarding the office of Mr Lindsay-Smith's company, County Pest Control, with abusive and threatening phone calls. The police have been called and fellow company director Mel Webb fears that she will be the target of attack. "They have made threats to my person and property," she says. "They say they know where I live, and tell me to be careful how I walk home tonight. I am scared by it, yes."
The red fox, Vulpes vulpes, inflames British passions in a way few other countries understand. But we can't decide as a nation whether we love it or want to kill it. Or both. We vote it our favourite wild animal, after the dolphin, in several surveys, but then keep hunting and shooting it. The Government spent 700 parliamentary hours on the act that banned hunting with hounds, but a year to the day after it came into effect it seems unenforceable. And the city snipers are busier than ever.
Before the ban, countryside campaigners claimed that townies just did not understand that foxes were vermin and did great damage. Thousands of jobs would be lost by stopping the hunts, said the Countryside Alliance, and foxes would run riot through the land. That has not happened and there is no mass unemployment, not least because the hunts have not really stopped. On the first day of the hunting season in November, more than 300 hunts rode out. They were watched by 3,000 police. "The law is being flouted," said Ann Widdecombe MP. The hunts use legal loopholes that allow them to pursue a fox with a bird of prey or lay a scented trail and "accidentally" come across a live animal.
Only 6,000 foxes were killed every year by hounds, anyway. A further 80,000 were shot, and it is believed that more farmers are shooting them now than before. Or they hire Bruce Lindsay-Smith, a specialist who comes equipped with his own night-vision goggles, movement sensors and arsenal of weapons from smooth-bore shotguns to high-velocity rifles. The ban on hunting in the countryside has not caused the urban population of foxes to boom, he claims - it was booming anyway. "Our fox work has doubled in every one of the past five years. So far this year we have been dealing with - trapping or killing - up to 70 foxes a week, and that will increase once the cubs being conceived now begin to reach maturity in a couple of months."
Wildlife scientists dispute this anecdotal evidence, saying the urban population has stabilised at the same number it was a decade ago. There is, however, no doubt that urban foxes are doing better in Britain than anywhere else. One reason for this is historical: the cities have grown out to meet the foxes. During the 1930s, suburbs were built enclosing rural land where foxes lived. The new gardens were big, and offered both shelter and food. Fast food culture suits them as well as us. "Twenty-five years ago there might have been one kebab shop in the high street," says Mr Lindsay-Smith. "Now there are 10 times as many. People eat what they want and throw the rest aside."
The red fox is hugely adaptable. It can be found across the world from the deserts of North Africa to the Arctic tundra, surviving on whatever fruit or flesh is around. There are believed to be a quarter of a million in Britain, of which about 50,000 live in urban areas. They spend the days sleeping, then emerge at dusk to mate or forage.
Foxes live in family groups, with a dog and a vixen and their cubs, and possibly one or two other, subordinate adults. They lay down scent to mark territory, and do it again in response to change. A new pet, new shrubs or a new family moving into a house can prompt a frenzy of urination and defecation.
The droppings can carry Toxocara canis, a parasite that can damage human eyes; the urine can carry the highly dangerous Weil's disease, says Mr Lindsay-Smith. "This is nonsense," says Trevor Williams of the Fox Project, which campaigns on behalf of the animal and runs a rescue hospital. "No single case of Toxocara has been traced back to a fox. You only catch Weil's disease from rats."
Infestation by ticks or fleas is less contentious. Foxes can also harm walls, fences and foundations, and two cemeteries have even reported them digging up human remains. There have been reported cases of cats, rabbits and even small dogs being eaten, but these are challenged: a study by Bristol University, the leading study centre in this field, found that only 0.7 per cent of cat deaths were caused by foxes. The fox is not usually an aggressive animal. Even the bold ones who share their territory with humans will simply sit on the lawn in the sunshine and stare back insolently while you shout at them to go away.
Only two children have been hurt by them in the past five years, but one was a 14-week-old baby boy in Dartford, Kent, who in 2001 was bitten four times. The fox came in through the doors to the patio and tried to pick the baby up by the head. Mr Lindsay-Smith lay in wait a few nights later, and shot it.
Hiring him for one night to do the same to the foxes in your back garden will cost about £400. Alternatively, he might trap them. If clients insist, the foxes are released unharmed in a country park near his home in Surrey. They may not survive: an urban fox, set free in alien rural territory, may be driven out by others or not able to find food.
Foxes are cunning, however. Aesop said so in his fables. Beatrix Potter knew it. Medieval artists even portrayed the devil as a fox. Having been trapped once, they will not fall for it again. Earlier this year, Charlton Athletic Football Club called for Mr Lindsay-Smith to deal with foxes that had been digging up their pitch in south-east London. Traps were baited and animals caught, but they were then released by an anonymous animal-lover at the ground. The football club still wanted a solution, but now traps were useless. "We had to shoot them," says the hunter, who calls himself a wildlife manager. "A well-intentioned person made it worse."
Mr Lindsay-Smith lives in a beautiful old house in rural Surrey, the heads of a muntjac and a Chinese water deer ornamenting the walls of his kitchen. Hunting knives and an ancient-looking shotgun hang beside a copper kettle.
Anyone can legally shoot a fox, he says, as long as they have a firearms licence that covers the land they are on. "But it is not something I would suggest that anyone does without two decades of experience." He has been doing it for 27 years. He appears to like foxes, judging by the number of them painted on the china mugs and plates in his kitchen, but still believes they need to be controlled, particularly in the cities, "otherwise a lot of recreational spaces will be completely destroyed".
Not so, says Mr Williams of the Fox Project. "Killing them does not achieve anything, because within a fortnight there will be foxes in that place again. Any vacated territory will quickly be taken over. So whoever pays the hunter money will have to pay it again soon." Foxes polarise opinion like no other animal, he admits. "They have never been officially classified as vermin. That is a myth. But on the other hand, anyone who says they're cuddly, friendly creatures that would never hurt a rabbit is kidding themselves. A lot of people are in cloud-cuckoo land when it comes to foxes - on both sides of the argument."
250,000 FOXES live in the UK. Numbers increase, briefly, after breeding
50,000 OF THESE live in urban areas. More may commute at night
33 per cent OF THEIR FOOD is scavenged from, or left out by, humans
16 FOXES may be found for every square kilometre of London
18 months IS THE AVERAGE life expectancy of a British urban fox
200,000 FOXES live entirely in rural areas, according to expert estimates
86,000 FOXES were killed each year while the use of dogs was legal
6,000 OF THOSE were killed by hounds. Most of the others were shot
250 HUNTS rode out on Boxing Day, watched by 3,000 police officers
9 years IS THE MAXIMUM age a fox living in the countryside has reached