About three weeks ago, at dusk, I looked away from my computer screen at my small but pretty garden, which backs onto a park. In the bushes at the back was a ginger cat - or so I thought . It appeared and disappeared all too briefly. But there was something odd about it; it was on the red side of ginger, and lacked the swagger of a tomcat (nearly all ginger cats are male). Back it came, and I realised that it wasn't a cat at all but a fox cub. Another followed, then another, and they made for the middle of my lawn. Then came the vixen, sauntering gracefully. The cubs started playing, rolling over each other like kittens in a basket. Sporadically, the mother would join in, then extricate herself with dignity. I was transfixed, and watched the scene for half an hour, when they disappeared. While I would dearly love to have captured it on camera for posterity, and for NER readers, it was too dark, and I do not have the skill, or a good enough camera; besides, the foxes would have been scared away.
Almost a year ago, also at dusk, I was likewise transfixed by a vixen suckling her cub on the lawn. Could that cub now be the mother? Who knows, but it was a magnificent sight, and I felt privileged to see it. I live in London, and not in the leafy suburbs - suburbs are always leafy, aren't they? - but under three miles from the centre. Yet here was nature, in my own garden. I have never understood hostility to urban foxes; we should count ourselves lucky that they visit us. Simon Barnes of The Times believes we should even "cherish [them] as status symbols":
The outlook was wonderfully and suburbanly verdant, my sister's garden playing a full part in the landscape of intricately compartmented green. And there, on the roof of the neat little shed that stood hard against the wall - just before it disappeared behind the branches of a stupendous lilac in full purple bloom - a fox.
Not just any fox. A fox of beauty and charm and elegance, apparently freshly groomed, lithe and gleaming red. The white tip of his brush vanished into the lilac and then for a moment I saw him continue his journey along the top of the wall, a creature at home in his world, unstoppably self-confident and positively glowing with health.
It is always a deeply cheering thing to come up against the wild world deep in the haunts of humankind. It is a message that we haven't concreted over every last square inch; that we haven't buggered it all up quite yet; that there is a way in which human beings can live alongside the wild world,
You are much more likely to see a fox in Mortlake than around my place in Suffolk. Urban foxes are not only a fact of modern life, they are also, by the nature of their chosen lives, a great deal more visible than country foxes. Now hear a strange fact: just about everything you know about urban foxes is a myth.
They are not “coming in”. They are not increasing, either. They have an established and stable population in most towns and cities in this country. Foxes started being seen in towns after the First World War, and have been there in substantial numbers ever since the Second. Towns expanded into the countryside and the foxes changed their behaviour and adapted, thrived and made the most of this new opportunity - so much so that foxes have been seen in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace gardens.
Another myth: urban foxes do not represent some pitiful scavenging underclass. What's more, they are not invariably mangy. The talk of mangy foxes mostly comes from sightings of foxes during their annual moult, when they do indeed look deeply unprepossessing. But the point is that a thriving and stable population of any creature cannot be dominated by sick, ill-fed and diseased animals. There are plenty of urban foxes, therefore they must be healthy. If they weren't, they would die out.
Yet urban foxes arouse huge hostility from some people. They find it disturbing, rather than the reverse, to have wild things playing an intimate part in human life. Foxes are sometimes shot and generally seen as vermin. Newspapers play up the scary aspects and, besides, the pro-hunt people always cast foxes as anthropomorphic villains. In truth, foxes are just mammals trying to make a living, same as you and me.
There are a few legitimate complaints about urban foxes. They like to leave aromatic reminders of their presence, and they can dig up lawns when looking for worms. Me, I'm inclined to say, so what? But even if you resent this, there really is not a lot you can do about them. Foxes can get through the smallest gaps and exterminating them is difficult, expensive and never successful. If you shoot up your local foxes, you are merely creating a vacancy.
Here's a fact rather than a myth: foxes like a good class of neighbourhood. They prefer leafy suburbs populated by middle-class property owners.
Cherish your local foxes. They are not pests but status symbols.
Well, as I don't live in a leafy suburb, the foxes must have been drawn to my class. Foxy meets classy - all in a day's work in North London.
Cue for a song: click below to hear The Fox, by Steeleye Span: