Friday, 25 January 2013

Is there such a thing as a suburban fox?

Photo: Andrew Downes

This is the full feature that appears in edited form in today's Irish Examiner:

After washing up the dishes and wiping down the kitchen surfaces, I feel a sad need to reassert an idea of manhood.

Stepping outside the back door, I inhale deeply of the cold sweet country air, the deep darkness of the night and the aspirant silence of winter.

Wandering off to nowhere in particular in the garden, I scent my territory as only a man can, and enjoy feeling a bit primal for a minute or two.

Evidently not primal enough, because the next morning as I wander the garden I notice a fresh fox pooh laid directly over the spot where I scented the night before. 

And so it begins. Wherever I scent, the fox poohs on top. I moved in to the house last March and by June there’s a pile of tiny baby fox poohs alongside the regular contribution from Himself. Or Herself? I’ve no idea. If there are cubs then you’d think it must be a vixen, but to me he feels like a male, maybe because his territorial behaviour makes me feel empathic towards him. 

He has his patch all to himself for years, and then before you can say ‘blow-in’ there’s another bloke, leaving scents all over the place. He’s not having it. Not at all. Listen human, this just isn’t going to happen. So he drops his turd on my scent, telling me in no uncertain terms that I am on his patch. And that’s the order of things.

I’ve been able to watch him really close up, and he looks like a male. About a month ago I stepped out of the house an hour after dusk. Closing the door behind me with my usual enthusiasm I crunched quickly over the gravel driveway and then froze in my tracks. The exterior light was on, illuminating a large and completely oblivious fox on the front lawn. He didn’t give a damn. I’d slammed the door and made a right racket storming along the drive, but he hadn’t even bothered to lift his nose from the grass. Running in huge figures of 8 he tracked something that was running at high speed and then he dipped, ate it and wandered about. 

Being a friendly type of idiot, I softly whispered to him, as if that might help start peace talks over our border issues. He was magnificent, almost a metre long with a long sunburst brush to match. Relaxed and cool as butterscotch sundaes, he just pootled around, as disinterested in me as I was captivated by him.

There have been more similar encounters, which helped to build a fictional notion within me that we were building some kind of relationship, even if on the most base level.

Just over the stone wall is a farmyard with ducks, geese, and chickens running around, yet I’ve heard of no fowl killed by this fox. One late evening last midsummer, there was an almighty kerfuffle in the woods behind the house. The local neighbourhood pheasant hen was desperately trying to protect her chicks from a predator, which I could only imagine was Himself. A few weeks later I saw Madame pheasant strolling about accompanied by nine healthy leggy fluff balls. 

So he doesn't eat chicks or chickens, ducks or geese. Maybe he’s alright, this fox.

Would that it were so. 

Pulled into the side of the house for the winter is my huge rosemary plant, newly ensconced in a half tub container, alongside a smaller lavender plant in a terracotta pot. Being a lazy git who hasn’t made it to the garden centre, I have no special fleece to protect my tender and much-loved plants from frost. Instead I throw an old Oxfam quasi-Peruvian rug over them on very cold nights.

That proves adequate until the morning I step outside the back door to find the rug lying in a heap in the middle of lawn. There had been no wind at all that night, and anyway, it would need a gale to lift that rug. 

Looking closer, I can see from the disruption to the frosty dew on the grass that the rug has been dragged along and dumped. 

There’s not many wild creatures in rural Ireland that could do that, and even fewer who’d want to.

My protective instincts tell me that himself is now going to war with me, via my plants. He couldn’t have picked a more sensitive spot. Yes I know it’s a ridiculous notion, but it fits. 

Well fox, you can mess with me but you don’t muck around with my plants. You’ve got the whole countryside to deal with.

But has he? When I watch him on the lawn, he knows I’m there looking at him, but he doesn’t care. I’d expect those high levels of confidence from an urban fox, but this is a rural area.  

Well, it is but it isn’t. Yes, it’s mostly farmland but there has been a plethora of new houses built around here in the last 20 years. Fox ranges must have shrunk dramatically. 

So if he’s neither a rural fox nor an urban fox, does he become a suburban fox?

Makes me shudder to call this area suburban. It couldn’t be more beautiful, so very different to the outer London suburbs that I grew up in, or the anodyne city-less suburbs that sprawl across the USA. But the population which was once pure farmer is now shared with those who drive half an hour to work in the city, so while being so rural that one can see the Milky Way, it is also suburban.

Maybe the fox is too.

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