Profile: The fox - He's a cute little creature, but he's for the chop, one way or another

Hounds are the least of his problems. If the shotgun doesn't get him, poison, hunger or a car will, says Ross Clark

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AGAINST ALL the odds it is business as usual today in the gentle, rolling, killing fields of rural England. Portly middle-aged men and silk-scarved ladies with voices like fog horns will climb into the saddle outside village pubs and ride off to do battle in the copses and furrowed fields. It is the first day of the fox-hunting season which many believed would never happen. Eighteen months into a Labour government and the unthinkable has happened: the unspeakable are still in pursuit of the uneatable. (Well, uneatable to most, though that famous fox-hunting philosopher, Roger Scruton, has eaten fox and lived to tell the tale.)

It wasn't meant to be this way. When the Worcester MP Michael Foster topped the private member's bill ballot last year and tabled a bill to ban hunting with hounds, it was assumed that the huntsmen would by now have hung up their red coats for the last time. Instead the Government let the bill be talked out by the Tory knights of the shires and has subsequently refused to indicate any alternative anti-hunting legislation. Perhaps it is a foil; perhaps Labour is simply waiting to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers before it dares to move on an issue quite so guaranteed to raise the ire of the landed gentry. Or perhaps the Government was, as many believe, genuinely shocked by the reaction to its ban on beef on the bone and is seeking to erase what is perceived to be a puritanical streak.

Either way, the fox certainly won't be holding his breath. The day that fox hunting is banned will in fact be no great day of freedom for him. It will merely be the day that those breathless and bumbling hounds are replaced by the keepers and their terrifyingly efficient high-velocity rifles. For the fox the future that awaits him is rather similar to the fate which awaited medieval women accused of witchcraft. Just as they could not win - either they drowned on the ducking stool or survived to be burnt at the stake - neither can the fox. Either way he is dead - if not between the jaws of a hound, then by the blast of a gun. The only difference is that the puritans' conscience will be more settled if he meets the latter end.

If the fox could understand human language, he certainly would not feel much loved at a meeting of the League Against Cruel Sports; many members openly admit that the fox is vermin and has to be killed. Their preferred method? Going out at night with powerful searchlights which stun the fox. Unused to daylight, let alone a searchlight, he freezes - and therefore provides a marksman with an unsporting opportunity to pick him off at close range.

From a bystander's point of view, of course, a fox hunt is itself one- sided; 60 strong hounds (30 couples) pitched against one fox half their size. But the fox has long since noticed that his predators aren't exactly the smartest cookies around. Several times while being hunted he will have run right in front of the hounds, almost within pawing distance - and survived. The hounds, who live by their noses, can be so fixated on one of his earlier trails that they will not spot him.

It is not just animal-lovers who are appalled by fox hunting, but efficiency experts, too: 60 dogs, several dozen people on horseback and what does the hunt achieve? Perhaps four foxes on a good day - a tally that one keeper could achieve in half an hour. And that is a good day. As often as not the hounds will return to their kennels without a single scalp to their name.

If it weren't for the hunt, the fox would be top of the food chain - king of the little jungles that are the English shires. It is a role that seems too grand for what is essentially just a medium-sized dog. Even an adult reaches only 40 centimetres from head to toe. Until the 18th century, the fox never rated very highly in the minds of the landed gentry. It was the sight of a stag that set the pulse of the 17th-century sportsman racing. In the stag, the hunts of old England not only had a challenging day's sport, they had a worthwhile meal at the end of it, not just an unwanted carcass. But as the woodlands were turned to farmland, stags became too few and far between, leaving the huntsman looking for another animal. The idea of raising an entire field of hounds to snuff out a tiny fox at first seemed comic, but everyday country folk managed to contain their mirth.

The misfortune of the fox is that he leaves behind a strong scent. His Achilles' heel, as it were, is his well-developed anal glands. They are there to attract the female, but when the mating season is in full swing in the depths of winter they leave behind a scent that can be traced for hundreds of yards back to his burrow. If his trail does get picked up, the fox's best hope is that it is a dry day with a warm sun; then his scent will rapidly evaporate and the hounds will be sent home.

The wetter the ground, the more likely that the fox will be chased all the way to his burrow. Unless he can make it to sanctuary in somewhere like Sir Paul McCartney's garden, his only real hope then is that the hunt does not have its terrier man on duty. Sometimes the landowner will instruct the hunt to flush his land of foxes without giving them the usual sporting chance. Then the fox will arrive at his burrow only to find the exits blocked off. He may indeed find himself trapped inside his own home, chased by a terrier, until, exhausted, he hears the roof collapsing in all around him. He has been finally dug out and captured. The last thing he sees will be the barrel of a gun.

But the fox's real enemy is hardly the terrier man. As with all wild animals, what the fox fears most is not predators but gnawing hunger. The fox is not quite as carnivorous as many people imagine he is - he will eat a wide variety of nuts and berries. Nevertheless, he needs a good, regular quantity of meat in his normal diet. Procuring it was fairly straightforward until mankind declared war on rabbits in the 1950s. Myxomatosis destroyed the single biggest element of the fox's diet and forced him into desperate measures. Once quite happy in the woods, he was forced into the farmyard in order to break into chicken houses. With the instinct to kill on sight, he won't just kill one chicken, he will set about killing the lot.

But chicken houses have proved to be a rare luxury in the fast-disappearing farmyards of England. The fox has been driven to cast his net ever wider. Like his predator, mankind, the fox is increasingly finding that rural living no longer pays. The rich pickings are to be found not in rural woods but in suburban streets, particularly on dustbin night. The fox himself is steadily giving up hunting and is becoming a scavenger. Rapidly overcoming his natural shyness towards man, he is living off the remains of our Sunday lunches. Sometimes, after a good meal, he sits and suns himself in London gardens. From the windows of gentrified Victorian terraces, middle-class families stare adoringly through binoculars at him; sometimes they feed him. Fox is becoming nice foxie.

Even so, urban life is riskier than country life. There are cars, electrified railway lines - and jagged-edged tin cans inside the dustbins. That is not to mention the poisons left for him by pest-control specialists. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, the fox has to live with the fact that, in spite of being the closest known relative of man's best friend, he is destined ever to remain shunned by most. It would all be different if his fur were appreciated. Then he might be farmed - and loved. The fox does well in captivity in North American fox farms. He puts on weight and lives much longer. But the very same animal lovers who want to save him from the hounds have also cut off this possible career move by turning the public against fur.

The fox won't have to face the hounds for very much longer. Even if Labour does not abolish fox hunting, it is slowly withering away. Motorways are slicing the hunt's territories into ever smaller fragments. Hunts that used to meet every day of the week are now down to just one or two days. But it won't make much difference to the fox. If he could write his own history, the campaign to abolish fox hunting would barely warrant a footnote.

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