Country Matters: A gentleman comes calling right on time

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YOU could set your watch by his appearances, so precisely does he time them: every evening at 7.40, give or take a few seconds, this rangy dog fox pops out into the open at the top of our highest field. He is lithe and sleek and bright rust- coloured, with a brush as long as your arm, his only blemish being an old rip in his left ear, probably acquired in a fight.

We often saw this gentleman about during the winter - and indeed it was he who led the hunt a merry dance one day in February. After a furious cavalry charge had taken place along the top of the hill, we watched him make off, at a leisurely walk, in the opposite direction, and so well had he confused the hounds that it was fully 10 minutes before they picked up his trail.

It may also be he who infiltrates the farmyard at night and carries off any eggs that we have been careless enough not to collect. Yet it was not until a couple of weeks ago that he began to put in regular evening appearances, and by then we had new-born lambs out in the fields. Fearing that he had designs on them, we started to keep a close eye on him.

Our land lies along the lower slopes of an escarpment, and above the top of our fields, on the steepest part of the hill face, there stands a wood, whose lower edge is more or less horizontal, following the contour. From house and garden we thus look out on grassland rising gently to the wood, and then, above the fields, a bank of trees.

It is from these trees that Charlie appears. Because he almost always comes out of the left-hand corner, as we look, we assume that he spends the day tucked up in an earth, well known to us, under the ash poles there. Yet it is his movements outside the wood, rather than inside, that concern us.

Many potential dinners await him in the valley below. The closest are our lambs. Next comes whatever there may be in the fox-larder - the space in a double hedge where we often put out bones, chicken carcasses and so on. Further up the same hedge live a great many rabbits, most of them young and foolish; and finally, a mile distant, are the dustbins of the village.

The fox's usual policy is to head for the larder first; but one evening this week he made a beeline for the nursery paddock into which we had put a ewe with twins only three days old. One of them was rather weak and, as if guided by some sinisterly accurate instinct, the fox headed straight for the little shelter in which the family was tucked up.

Luckily we had been expecting the visit, and were ready to intervene. But the fox was remarkably cool. When my wife shouted and ran up the lawn, he merely walked back some of the way to the wood and sat down, looking at us.

I could easily have fetched the .243 and blown him to kingdom come: at 100 yards' range, he was in every sense a sitting target. But I did not want to do that - he was such a fine-looking fellow, and so far he had not done us much harm. In the end, to persuade him that this particular corner of the farm was none too healthy a place in which to hang about, I put a .22 bullet into the bank close by him - whereupon he did at last canter off.

Next night, as we watched again, out he came, right on schedule. Yet this time, far from loitering, he cantered staight down through the sheep, on to the bottom hedge, along to the larder, through the fence, and was gone. Where was he off to in such a hurry? At that speed, I reckoned, he could go to Gloucester and back before daybreak.

Next evening we somehow missed him coming down, but just as I emerged from a bath I saw him - through a window on the end of the house - already almost in the farmyard. He was travelling fast along the edge of the vegetable garden on an in-bound trajectory, towards the chicken barn, whose door was still standing open. Stark naked, I sprinted along the landing, seized the .22, sprinted back and flung open the window. The fox had disappeared. For a moment I feared he was already in the hen house, laying about him; but then he emerged from behind the horsebox, saw me move, and bolted. Leaning over the windowsill, I got him in the telescopic sight, eased the cross- hairs clear to the left, and fired a bullet into the turf beside him. The impact - a good, loud smack in the wet earth - made him thrash his brush and step on the power.

Two evenings later my wife was walking back along the bottom hedge with our labradors when she saw him heading down towards her. Within seconds Zephyr had him on her radar and, though built on the lines of an All-Black prop forward, took off up the hill at (for her) terminal velocity. The fox was preoccupied with hunting beetles, and for a few seconds failed to notice that a thunderbolt was approaching; but when he did see that he was on the receiving end of a charge, he flipped round and raced up into the wood at a speed that left the dog standing.

You might think that after such harassment he would change his ground. Not a bit of it. On Wednesday, I myself went for an evening stroll through the heart of his territory, along the path at the bottom of the wood. All the way I was thinking that, if Charlie was on time, he must be somewhere very close; but although at one stage I heard the low tuck, tuck, tuck with which a blackbird warns of ground vermin, I saw no sign of him in the jungle of bluebells, wild garlic and dog mercury.

Yet as I completed my circuit and returned to base, what should I find but that he had come out at the top of the field, as usual, and was sitting there like a huge cat, gazing down. It was clear that he had seen me pass by, waited, emerged into the open, and watched me as I came along the rabbit-infested hedge below.

Now, for 20 minutes, we had a perfect chance to observe him. His coat glowed in the evening sun. Through a 30- power telescope I could see every detail as he groomed himself, curled up for a snooze, sat up again, and swung his head back and forth to check that the coast had cleared. Did I imagine it, or was there a hint of irritation in the set of his sandy eyebrows - a slight frown, brought on by his enforced wait for dinner?

In my mind I could hear Old Bill, my gamekeeper-gardener friend of yesteryear, muttering, 'Garn] Give 'ee a ribber]' - for it was Bill's ambition to drill a hole in every fox he met, and to have had one sit out in full view of him would have been an intolerable provocation. Besides, Bill might have argued that if I did give this fellow a ribber, I should save a considerable number of other animals from annihilation - the young rabbits along the hedge, the pheasants that will hatch next month, perhaps even some of our chickens.

But somehow I had come to enjoy the company of this fox, and I held my fire. He is a star performer, and his evening operations have become a regular cabaret. 'Be here by half-past seven, and you'll see him,' we tell our guests - and he does not disappoint.

If he should be so rash as to kill one of our lambs, my goodwill towards him will no doubt quickly evaporate; but there is so much other food about that such an outrage seems unlikely, and so for the time being he is perfectly safe.