Blake Morrison: The secret life of the fox

The writer and poet Blake Morrison sees foxes almost every day of the year. But the animal he knows so well bears little relation to the creature at the centre of the current hunting debate
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The Independent Online

Like many a London suburbanite, I see foxes several times a day. There's a little concrete gully round the house that they like to pad through and they've an earth down the end of the garden. I've fed them scraps and leftovers; heard those eerie night-cries that sound as though they're killing geese or babies; seen them sunning themselves on the roofs of garden sheds; watched litters of their cubs grow up; laughed as they chase each other round in crazy puppy-play; winced when a mating pair become tied (their genitals inextricably knotted, but their bodies facing in opposite directions - ouch); caught that "sharp, hot stink of fox" (Ted Hughes's phrase) that seems to cling to every shrub and hubcap. Hearing the keyboard from my basement office, they sometimes stop and peer in the window - and stare quizzically before trotting away. They grow bolder all the time. Once we left the kitchen door open, and a vixen wandered in. I imagine them taking over. One day I'll come down to the PC and find that they've wr

Like many a London suburbanite, I see foxes several times a day. There's a little concrete gully round the house that they like to pad through and they've an earth down the end of the garden. I've fed them scraps and leftovers; heard those eerie night-cries that sound as though they're killing geese or babies; seen them sunning themselves on the roofs of garden sheds; watched litters of their cubs grow up; laughed as they chase each other round in crazy puppy-play; winced when a mating pair become tied (their genitals inextricably knotted, but their bodies facing in opposite directions - ouch); caught that "sharp, hot stink of fox" (Ted Hughes's phrase) that seems to cling to every shrub and hubcap. Hearing the keyboard from my basement office, they sometimes stop and peer in the window - and stare quizzically before trotting away. They grow bolder all the time. Once we left the kitchen door open, and a vixen wandered in. I imagine them taking over. One day I'll come down to the PC and find that they've written my next book for me.

Till I moved to London, I never saw a fox. They were part of the fabric of a country childhood, yet conspicuous by their absence. Each Boxing Day, men in red coats, glowing with tots of whisky, would ride off on horseback in pursuit. I'd stand watching as they cantered through the icy fields, the hounds yelping them on. An occasional hare would start up, long-eared and faster than lightning, but never a low brown fox. It wasn't the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable, just sad old toffs chasing an illusion.

Frustrated, I turned to the Book of British Mammals. "With his sleek red coat and white waistcoat, Mr Fox is a smart-looking animal," it said. "But he is cunning, too. He stalks his prey like a Red Indian, waiting to pounce on baby rabbits - up springs Reynard and poor Bunny is no more! - or slinking home with a plump young Partridge in his teeth. I am afraid his cubs have not good manners, for they snarl and quarrel dreadfully over their meal." It wasn't much of a character reference. We kids were cowboys, so any Red Indian was a deadly enemy. "Exterminate! Exterminate!" cried the Daleks in Dr Who. The local farmers said it too, about the foxes plundering their lambs and geese.

The fox has cleaned up its act since then. Basil Brush, Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, a couple of television documentary series shot in Bristol gardens, informative and enthusing books by Les Stocker and Stephen Harris, the establishment of fox hospitals and rescue agencies - given all the image-refurbishment, it's no wonder MPs have just voted to ban hunting. The fox is predominantly an urban, or least suburban, creature these days. So I resent it when country folk claim that townies like me don't know what foxes are "really like" and accuse us of sentimentalising them.

Sentimentalise? Foxes are a bloody pain. They rip open plastic rubbish bags, sick up heaps of red berries, shit on the doorstep, dig up plants, and steal gardening gloves and tennis balls left out overnight. At a barbecue last summer, one even made off over the fence with a trainer which a neighbour's child had briefly taken off. Scroungers, vandals, muggers. You can't turn your back for a minute.

But it's inconvenience we're talking of here, not villainy. Town foxes are less of a pest than their country cousins. Unless you've lost a pet rabbit or hamster, it's hard to regard them with loathing. I wouldn't want to trap or poison them, or see dogs ripping them apart.

No country has a higher proportion of urban foxes than Britain. In the past couple of years, they've been spotted at 10 Downing St, beneath the Dome, in St Paul's Cathedral, and on the pitch during a Rangers vs Celtic game. The migration began as far back as the 1940s. Hunger, hunting and gamekeepers may be part of the reason, and the process was accelerated by the myxomatosis epidemic of the 1950s (which deprived rural foxes of their major food source, the rabbit). But it's also a case of towns spreading out to meet them. The suburban garden is a safe and fox-friendly habitat.

Foxes are often portrayed as savage loners. In truth, they're masters of adaptability - sociable, family-oriented (they breed once a year, in March), preoccupied with their own spaces (they urinate to mark out their territory) and drawn to a life of easy pickings. Most of them stick within the M25 or other southern commuter zones, and wouldn't last a day out in the sticks. They are, to put it another way, Blairite and middle-class. If they could speak, their accent would be estuary English.

Beyond the UK, the red fox - Vulpes vulpes - can be found in North America, Australia, Japan and almost all of Europe. It's only one among 14 fox species, ranging from the Arctic fox to the Tibetan sand fox, all of them members of the dog family. The "little foxes" mentioned in the "Song of Solomon" ("take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines") were presumably fennec foxes, which are no bigger than chihuahuas; the 300 foxes whose bushy tails Samson set alight in order to destroy Philistine crops might have been, too. But it's the red fox that features in most folklore.

In Chinese and Japanese legends, the fox is seen as libidinous, and often disguises itself in human female form - as in David Garnett's famous novel, Lady into Fox. By the sound of their cries, vixens certainly have exotic sex lives. But European legend, from Aesop's fables to the medieval epic of Reynard, puts the emphasis on slyness and trickery. The cunning celebrated in fiction often passes for fact. It used to be believed that a fox would rid itself of fleas by taking a leaf in its mouth and slowly immersing itself in a stream till all the fleas crawled on to the leaf, which the fox then let float away. Other myths die harder. A few still enjoy currency:

1. The fox and the crow. The fox feigns death so the crow approaches - then, pounce, lunch. Probably untrue. The fox has genuinely fallen asleep, and the crow comes to see if it's a carcass. It wakes and takes its chance. Not cunning, just opportunism.

2. The fox and the hounds. The fox, pursued, runs along a railway line into the path of an oncoming train. It veers off in the nick of time. The hounds are not so lucky. Immense cunning? No, the fox, ahead and alone, finds it easy to take evasive action. The hounds, in a pack, over-excited, with most of them unable to see ahead, aren't fast enough.

3. The fox and the hens. The fox in the hen-house takes only one or two, but kills dozens. Sadism? Blood lust? Wanton destruction? More likely it's the instinct for caching - storing the winnings of a good night for the leaner ones to follow. But the fox overdoes it, and hasn't the energy to go back and collect all the corpses.

4. The fox and the missing cat. Rural foxes do eat lambs (perhaps one in 200 lambs disappear that way), but urban foxes don't eat cats. In any square-up (as with cats and dogs), the fox will usually come off worse.

5. The fox and the pregnant family dog. That mysterious-looking puppy? Forget it. Male foxes may show interest in female dogs on heat, but can't breed with them. Their chromosome count is different: 38 in foxes compared with 78 in dogs.

The prevalence of such myths suggest a continuing need to demonise the fox as sly and cruel, so that hunting it with horses and hounds, rather than seeming barbaric, becomes a vital social service. But the arguments for hunting, and for other forms of population control (snares, shotguns, cyanide, etc), are irrelevant to the foxes that most of us see. The greatest killer of them is the car. That's the one disadvantage of urban life for foxes: instead of the 14 years they might have, the average life-span is 18 months. Live fast, die young.

Mange, not to be confused with normal moulting, is another common health problem. Once afflicted, a fox can lose vast clumps of its fur, and - bald and mite-infested - slowly die. (The English word alopecia derives from the Greek for fox, alopex.) We had a mangy year or two round here, but the current locals look to be in rude health. At dusk, there are more of them on the streets than there are humans.

Who'd be a fox, rooting in bins? Not me. But I wouldn't mind their night vision, or spending an hour or two in their empire of sensual refinement. They've brought the wild to the suburbs. I don't pretend to know what goes on in their heads. But I like having them around. They seem at home here, among friends.

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