Sunday 30 August 2009

All quiet on the western front

If there's one think foxes love, it's heat. And if there's one thing that they hate, it's rain.
So that might explain why we have seen so little of our fox family this summer.
Barring a couple of glimpses which I have not yet described:

Once, for instance, I went down the garden to the compost bins and tossed my bucketful of scraps into its container. I noticed the foxy smell and glanced at the hollowed-out places under the nearby shed. They are well worn by now...
Outside one of these runways a straggly end of marmalade fur lay limply on the earth:
-Oh no, I thought, one of the little brutes has killed a cat!
(you always hear of this but never seen it...)
Bending over to look closer, the "end of fur" was hastily pulled under the shed to the sound of agitated clonks and scuffles from overcrowded home with no room to stow a tail away!

That was a couple of weeks ago and not much has been seen since.

However last week there was a fine hot day, a nice novelty, and there sure enough, punctual as clockwork, lay a young fox on Mary Martin's concrete path, blissfully snoozing in the sunshine!
I couldn't see which one it was, but one of the Middles is likeliest.
Mama fox has not been sighted, and Sandy has not been seen either.
But today, a very small fox appeared on my terrace while we prepared lunch. She checked the dishes and scampered away.
Small, dainty and a bit thin, it was certainly Charmer.
Didn't I say that the small ones are often survivors?

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Little charmer!

We have been watching the fox family, and feeding them. Although I always leave food on a plastic dish beside my frog-pond, others are less careful: My neighbour's garden is a wilderness of shredded packaging. In fact, another neighbour, also elderly, is away on holidays and I am watering her houseplants. Her back lawn is also covered with rubbish, including a shopping bag spilling out onions and potatoes. How do foxes know when a garden is unvisited?
Yesterday P and I stood at our bedroom window looking at the vixen and one of the cubs: comfortably couched quite near us, playfully nuzzling and nipping, grooming, open-mouthing and generally the picture of relaxed affection. The mother has quite bad mange so the drops I add to her food have not helped much if at all. I can only let Nature take its course - the possible interventions are all complicated, uncertain and possibly counterproductive.
Today I went down the garden and stood up on my grass-clippings pile to squint over the wall into Martin's. out from the shrubbery on my right trotted the smallest of the cubs, quite oblivious of me: I was downwind of him, above him, but only about 10 feet away!
S/he paused and cocked her head, pointing perfectly like any retriever, poised on three paws, the fourth daintily lifted. Then she scampered back into the bushes, entirely unworried and unhurried.
I have seen this little charmer before: the cub family consists of a Large (Sandy) two Mediums, (nameless) and a Smallest, this little sweetheart here. Many fox families that we have seen over the years follow this pattern: the littlest one is often one of the survivors, because the shyest and most cautious!
It is impossible to sex fox cubs by eye alone but I'm guessing female, fairly randomly I admit, just because she seems so delicate and feminine i.e. small! I hereby christen her Charmer!

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Four cubs and a vixen

Calloo callay! Spotted tonight, bounding around in the long grass of Martins' uncut lawn; first Sandy, the groundbreaker. Then another very small cub. Then a third, and then Mama, shaking her head Mary Poppins-style and sitting down heavily under the palm tree to watch her brood. And then we noticed that two cubs were scrapping to our left. And another two to our right. Definitely four! That is,unless a last and shyest one has yet to appear.
They scamper and swivel like otters, like greyhounds: they are very fast and they love to chase, one of them had a ball of white paper, it appeared, and the others pursued and hunted it.
Wow, I love watching cubs play! And we have had a couple of years with no cubs.
This bunch we assume to be the young Stringfellow tribe: ominously, their Mama has a large bare patch of mange on her left haunch. I will dose their food carefully from now we must choose names for all the cubs.
All are sandy, a surprisingly pale colour for a fox. Almost beige, some of them.
Sandy, big brother. What else is sandy or beige? beaches? deserts?
All suggestions gratefully received...

Sunday 24 May 2009


We have been seeing a half-grown cub in our garden and next door. He, or, of course, she, was first seen very shortly after the sad demise of Stringfellow. He is a good size and sometimes seen with an adult. If he was born, as most cubs are, around St Patrick's Day, he is better grown than some would be at this stage.
It is unusual that we have seen no others: a single-cub litter seems rare to us who have watched fox families for years. But it is possible that there is a more unpleasant explanation...
For the first few weeks after birth, the cubs remain underground in the breeding earth, with their mother. The dog fox brings food for her which he lays outside. Gradually the little foxes' blue eyes open and their chocolate brown fur becomes paler. After a while the vixen begins to leave them for short periods and the children, left alone, fight among themselves. This may account for the tumult of yelping, shrieking and growling that we have sometimes heard at dead of night very early in the year: I read somewhere that the cubs fight for dominance at this time and it may happen that the strongest one kills all the others.
Or possibly, Stringfellow and his missus just had a small family!
Whatever the reason, Sandy is so called because he is sandy in colour, quite pale for a fox cub, and full of mischief! He has been skittering around Martin's, exploring the lawn, sunbathing, and jumping around the adult that we presume is his mother, the quondam Mrs Stringfellow.
Fox cubs are as charming as puppies and kittens and just as lively: a delight to watch! Poor Mary Martin now has a garden full of ripped plastic bags, chewed shoes and food wrappers...ah well, kids grow up fast!

Friday 1 May 2009

Rest in peace

I heard along the neighbourly grapevine how Stringfellow's story ended. We last saw him crawling along the hedge of the house directly behind mine, on a Monday. Evidently he had a way through, for the following Wednesday, the mother of that household found a dead fox about midday on the grass verge in front of her house. She found that a local vet would not dispose of the body free of charge, but the body was eventually removed by the DSPCA. The description corresponds exactly with poor Stringfellow, who apparently hung on for about 48 hours from when we saw him.
Mange is a horrible, horrible thing: material for another post!

Monday 20 April 2009


What a lovely morning it was today. I strolled around the garden, inspecting violets, checking on tadpoles, etc. Noticing that the fox food from last night was gone, but a strong smell lingered in the still, dewy air. I had gardeners coming to do some chores today so I went and fetched the petrol can and put it on the terrace table. Some bluebottles flew up.
We have suspected a leak in the sewage pipe near that spot. I peered under table, but could see nothing. A home-made hutch for Cleo the cat to sleep out in is under that table too, but Cleo was indoors. So why was there a paw sticking out?
I backed away from the table, and peered directly under it. There, not one foot from my own toes, was a fox in the box, on top of Cleo's cushion.
I promise you, gentle readers, I was so gobsmacked I was breathless! I ran quickly and quietly into the house and got my mobile phone, took a couple of pics. Fox barely moved - in fact at first I had thought it might be dead!
A runny eye blinked, flies buzzed around. The camera-phone has no zoom. But luckily, just then, I heard my husband arriving home from an early-morning errand. I called him, and son no, 4, to view the fox. "Pretty cool!"
Patrick is a keen photographer and he fetched his excellent camera. Took several shots of the fox in the box, and then the fox got uneasy and began to come out. We were shocked to see the mangy hindquarters so close - naked haunches: septic scabs: lame left back leg. He limped off down the garden.
Later, when the gardeners were working, one of them pointed out our poor sick fox asleep in the picnic area, and reported seeing him unable to jump the wall: banging his head as if blind in one eye, which was indeed very suppuratey.
I phoned the DSPCA, in distress: thay said that they would send a van if we could get it into a crate. But our attempts only caused Stringfellow to crawl through the only possible gap into a neighbouring garden, (Cassidys) and then further out of sight, unreachable.
So that was that. Poor creature, he looked on his last legs. Probably dead by now, already.
It was the nearest we ever were to one of our own foxes, and rather touching to see him in the cat's hutch. Near his food supply, in a comfy spot.
I think now of his vixen, probably nearby with cubs, but not in our or Martin's garden:
There is a row of houses further up where all the owners are elderly and their long gardens probably overgrown. Of course a sensible vixen will choose there. She will have to defend the cubs herself now.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Take a look at this!

Spotted by my husband on YouTube: lovely film of a fox in, I think, Yellowstone Park.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Wildlife watching in Offaly

Carl stood on the canal bank, fishing. Behind him, lower, was the cottage. On the opposite bank, fields sloped upwards to the road. All was quiet in that remote spot.
Carl turned away, pausing in his work: he needed more ground bait from the picnic table in the cottage garden.
Returning up the bank to the waterside, he heard a sizeable splash.
"Hmm, that's a good-size fish for me to catch", he thought.
Resuming his rod, he gazed at the water: but the surface was undisturbed. Then greatly to his surprise an animal climbed out of the water on the far side: it scrambled up the bank, shook itself, paused and looked back at the amazed Carl, and trotted away up the slope along the western hedgerow. Was it an otter? The first, likeliest guess? No. A dog? No. A mink, a stoat? No.
It was a fox. Definitely, unmistakeably. Carl is from South Dublin: he knows foxes well.
In fact, at the cottage, foxes are rarely seen. The few previous sightings were both in the area of that self-same western hedge of the opposite field - evidently a traditional track.
Could the fox have been swimming to catch fish? I've never heard of this! Though Carl reports that fish are scarce this year. And foxes are known to eat dead fish on the seashore.
Perhaps the fox routinely hunts on this side the canal, and prefers to take a shortcut home, instead of a 2-kilometre walk via the bridge.
Maybe the fox only checks out our side when people are about, because there may be food scraps in the compost, or bait.
Maybe he was hiding, taken by surprise, waiting his chance to get clear: I've seen foxes do this, they are very collected.
By the way, there is no other inhabited house nearby on our side: no henhouse or animal feed, no dustbins. Plenty of birds in our trees, and some mice and rats no doubt. One other holiday cottage, some cattle, troughs, rushes and boggy fields.
We have seen, over the years, rabbits and hares, and sheep. There are ducks and moorhens, herons and swans on the canal. So I suppose an enterprising fox could arrange to feed a young family, if he was willing to take a swim! At this time of year, there may well be cubs underground in the care of their mother. Papa fox must forage for them all.
Still, it was a very unusual sighting: and I am very pleased to record it here!

Sunday 5 April 2009

Mortality rate

Well, I did put green plastic trellis over the two little ponds. Alas, it mustn't have been tight enough: the spawn is all gone from the upper pond. I had left a gap so that the frog itself would be able to get in and must have nuzzled its head underneath at one side and scoffed the lot!
However, spawn survives in the black plastic one: developing well.
I have spent time over the last few weeks planting trees with the Irish Wildlife Trust, and a couple of little hollies at the cottage. Last autumn's hazels are doing well...
I stopped filling the bird feeders, and now see many fewer birds! The official guidance is to keep it up until about June, but I forgot...
Warm weather has warmed the soil, grass is growing, plants shooting up.

FOXES: We have seen nothing, not a sausage. Well, a sausage, little scat on the lawn. Overnight food gone. Frogspawn vanished.
10 days ago I heard night screaming, yelping, growling, snarling, at about 2 a.m. Maybe 2 animals, tho' it's hard to tell. I ventured to hope that it represented the mother fox giving birth, as I seem to remember that the same happens each year about this time...but it's a secret life they lead.
Denning is underground, and that's where the babies stay for 6 weeks or so. And adults are very cagey at this time, so it's mostly guesswork and patience until May. We shall see!

Sunday 15 March 2009

Action stations

Well, whoever was splashing in the pond has finally scored. Frogspawn in both ponds.
(N.B. They are tiny, converted kitchen sink size!)
It's only a modest amount in each but it's the first time we ever saw spawn in the black pond which is higher off the ground and therefore needs a good leap in and another out.
Many tadpoles have grown up in it, of course, and every autumn we put a piece of plank in to act as a launching pad for little frogs, and leave a strip of long grass around as well.
Anyway, yesterday I actually saw the frogspawn floating to the surface in slow bubbles. Now we must put netting over both ponds so that foxes or birds don't eat it.

Babysitting! Frog's eye view of cameraman

Also, several sightings of our fox, Stringfellow. His tail is indeed mangy as are his haunches, poor thing. Apparently male, white cheek patches rather small, white markings on front legs.
I'm adding mange drops to his food.
Order mange drops from Derbyshire fox rescue, website linked on this page in the list to your right.

I spent a while tidying up the derelict garden today in fine spring weather. Tempting, tantalising, incipient life!

Wednesday 4 March 2009

A sighting.

No foxes have been seen in our garden for quite a while: and my neighbour's garden, that enticing wilderness, remains empty to the eye, at least by daylight.
Nonetheless, something has begun to knock over the compost bucket outside the kitchen door. Bother! I thought they had stopped doing that. What a mess.
I leave food out most nights and it goes.
Today, at midday, one of my sons had a good sighting (I was out). Down the end of our garden a largish, very red fox nosed about and seemed to dig, finding a whitish object. (I'm guessing, the lamb bone from last night.)
My son did not note the tail shape or the tag, but reports that the haunches were in poor shape. Damn. Mange, always attacks the buttocks first, I don't know why. I must start dosing again.
We can still hope that this fox is one of a mated pair, keeping a low profile.
Last week, on one day I noted splashes in my little Belfast-sink pond, and on another day a leap!
So there are things to be looked for yet.


A week ago, on the 23rd of February, I was walking at a Nature Reserve in Co. Wicklow with an old friend. How nice it was to see and hear and smell a touch of Spring, after the very long, very cold winter we have had. (Before it got wintry again this week!)
Towards the end of our rambling, we chanced upon the pond. Splash, rustle, ripple. Frogs were busy here. There we saw a couple together, male over female as frogs do. And as our eyes sharpened on our target, another couple and another. Some single frogs, sizing up the talent, no doubt, hung around the edges. And the merrily mated paddled and swam, clasped together in that strange embrace called "Amplexus".
The word comes from the Latin for "Embrace". The male frog, when woken from his winter stupor, calls from the edge of his pond for a female with his strange mournful cry. When he scores, so to speak, he clasps her from behind, around her waist, and thus linked, they swim together.
They can maintain this posture for long periods: swimming and making those characteristic splashings. The male grips firmly and cannot be loosened or shaken free. Eventually, the female begins to lay her eggs and as they leave her body, the male fertilises them.
Reaching the water, the eggs swell up and are the familiar frogspawn.
Though this was an artificial pond, it has been there for many years and always enjoys spectacular amounts of frog action. Years ago, when I was doing some volunteer work there, tracks could be seen every spring leading from all over the reserve. Up from the river's edge came the otter prints. Foxes left their oval pawmarks. Birds, dogs, everything eats frogspawn!
Spring is always hopeful. I had been sad, anxious over private worries. My friend had listened, as she so often has, patiently and sympathetically, as we walked.
Weather changes, that is its nature. Hope springs, that is nature too. The queer, unthinking, primitive dance of the mating frogs is a powerful strike for optimism.
My heart was as warmed by friendship as our faces were by sunshine, that lovely morning. It's time for the dormant, over-wintering buds to root and grow again.

Monday 16 February 2009

Watch this!

A kind Facebook friend sent me a link to this YouTube video.

If the link doesn't work, just go to Youtube and search for "foxes trampoline".

Amazing! Yet not amazing: foxes are intelligent higher mammals and one of the signatures for that is PLAYING. Foxes are playful, even adult ones. They certainly seem to like the trampoline!

Monday 9 February 2009

Night screaming

Re; previous post. It may have been cool, but it was also darned cold! And continues so, ice on the ground and freezing fog. Ugh.
For two nights in a row over the weekend we were treated to soundbites of foxy relationships.
A high-pitched shrieking sound, which at first you might think was tomcats fighting, but it's not. Foxes have a more "wordy" vocalisation and they are probably finished mating by now. The screaming is more likely to be a territorial dispute, repelling invaders: or a matrimonial row over food.
Whereas the mating habits of cats would be enough to make human eyes water (female ones, anyway) and give devout thanks for not being cats.
I like it when we hear foxes, it tells us and all other creatures in the area that this turf is Taken!

Thursday 5 February 2009


Yes, she's under the shed! This is so amazing. I could follow every step as she went around the garden, methodically checking the compost heap, across the Pit, up to the pond, back down, then a detour back up to the bird feeder, down again and in under the shed! In places I could even faintly see the swished trail left by the brush of the fox, right over the footprints.
I felt like some tracker of the jungle, stepping around in the queer blue snowy moonlight.
This has been really cool!


More thick snow tonight, quite unusual for Dublin, we are having a good bit of snow this week for once.
About 10 tonight a couple of our resident young lads decided to go out in the garden to make, appropriately, snowcones. I went with them to put out food from fridge-clearing.
Well, Snowcone had been here already! I was absolutely thrilled to see the neat line of fox prints, coming up from the shrubbery, around by the pond (where the fox-dish was missing) and back down to the grass-heap. We don't often get to see good spoor so I eagerly looked up my book of animal tracks and signs.
Here I learn that foxes are digitigrade, would you believe that? Well I'd never have guessed (eye roll)
More seriously, I did know to recognise fox prints by their narrow oval shape, most usually seen as a series of tight pairs as the animal trots, their characteristic gait. If these are printed on deep snow, which then melts a little, it can look like a straight line of single prints, which has caused many folk-tales of a one-legged creature hopping in a straight line for miles.
I haven't seen any fox droppings but naturally I recognise those too, a small coiled pile with a pointed tip. Traces of hair in winter, of fruit stones in autumn.
A thought occurs: here's a golden opportunity to find out if the fox is denning under our shed, or in one of the neighbouring gardens. I'm off out again to have a look!

Tuesday 3 February 2009

A quick look

Snow on the ground and freezing temperatures. I stocked up on birdseed and peanuts for the bird feeders. I've put food out every night for foxes. Last night I had the bright idea of putting the dish under the garden table so that it wouldn't fill up with snow!
Pickings were slim, though. Had to throw on a handful of dry cat food, a new kind that Cleo doesn't like very much.

This afternoon about 3.30, a fox slipped into the Pit and came cautiously up the garden. (Did I explain before that The Pit is our family name for a low oval patio area screened from the house: so called because my father dug it out as a soil supply for levelling further up.)

Well, it's my friend with the pointy tail tag, henceforward to be called Snowcone. S/he spotted me moving at the kitchen window, and froze. So I froze. We stood freezing together...but reassured by my immobility, Snowcone explored the sadly empty fox-dish and went away to the grass-heap, where s/he leaped the wall at the traditional spot.

I feel it is my duty to mention here that the dead fox, adjacent to that spot, may have had a bit of dismemberment...ahem. Lost its head, in fact. Thank God for autumn colour, that's all I say.
Snowcone is a nice clear bronze fox, not very large, very healthy looking though probably hungry. Couldn't guess what sex, though I might hazard a certain feminine daintiness. The clearly separated conical tail tag is unmistakeable.

I'm always happy when I see a fox. It's lucky for me, a totem. SAD has lifted with the bright snow light, and foxes!

Wednesday 21 January 2009


A couple of days ago, my husband crossed the path of a fox just on the corner of this road at about 6.30 in the evening, dark of course.
He described this one as medium size and with a distinct 2-inch tag.

Earlier today I stood for some time at my bedroom window, entranced by the seething birdlife on the four feeders. Sparrows, robins, pigeons, collared dove, blue tits, coal tits, greenfinches, 3 male blackbirds, song thrush, vividly coloured chaffinch.
Mental note: birds love pastry!

Just as I watched, next door in Martin's a fine amber fox appeared briefly. I couldn't see the tail or any detail through the bushes and it soon went out of sight behind the golden privet, a traditional lying-up spot, covering the access to Behind-her-shed.

Some few minutes later, it re-emerged and crossed the area of fallen tree in her garden.
I got a reasonable good look: Large amber fox, thickly furred and no wonder with the bitter weather we've been having.

The tail tag was clearly marked, a neat white 2-inch cone. It could have been the one Patrick saw, it is definitely not Grizzle. Looks very healthy, no sign of mange.

After freezer cleaning there were some tidbits put out: last night was some cooked salmon, today some thawed chicken livers, too old for me.

I'm annoyed now to look out and see Cleo the cat feasting on liver!

Thursday 15 January 2009

Resourceful scavengers

First of all, a link:

I was idly internetting and decided to revise my knowledge of foxes a little. This website has plenty of useful information in accessible form. I had a read of the comments on fox feeding since this is a topic that frequently arises.
Do many people feed foxes? Yes, a lot of people do! Some enthusiasts buy meat specially but this is unnecessary. Most kitchen scraps are acceptable, except maybe for some vegetables. Any meat trimmings, ends of cheese, stale sandwiches, fruit, sweet stuff (foxes really have a sweet tooth!)
I often wonder if the traditional caution about giving cooked chicken bones to dogs and cats applies to foxes. My guess is that they eat so much found stuff that a chicken carcass is just a mouthful to them! Still, I go a little carefully just in case.
Commonest question: Are they hungrier now that they can't get food out of wheelie bins?
Answer: NO! There are more foxes around the suburbs now than there were ten years ago, and they look pretty well fed. Bird feeders, cat dishes, compost heaps, mice and rats, worms and insects, dead birds, roadkill, dropped fast food like chips and wrappings with pizza crust, apple cores and ends of bread in the schoolyard, and of course, the offerings of suckers like me and many of my neighbours!
One handy thing about the carrion-eating habits of the fox is that they have a palate for food that is quite "high". So that bit of ham or fish in the fridge that is well past it's use-by date can be put out for foxes and do them no harm. This reduces your waste footprint, too.
I'm afraid the corollary is, if a cherished pet has died and been interred with full military honours in your back garden, it is advisable to put a good solid rock or paving slab on top to avoid exhumations...'nuff said.
In the last week, I've put out: the skin from a side of smoked salmon, fat and gristle trimmed from stewing beef, stale cheese sandwich, scrapings of spaghetti bolognese, two mince pies.
Gone, all gone. Signs of passage under my garden shed too. Barking and yikkering at night.
No actual sightings, but signs clear to read.

Thursday 1 January 2009


Well, this is a nice New Year's omen. I saw Grizzle twice today. First at about noon, walking away from the fox-dish which had been empty anyway. He, or she, leapt lightly over the wall into Martin's, just at the very spot which is the foxes' traditional crossing-point, and just below which lies the body of his fallen comrade. I'm almost afraid to look, even though the dead body is a little way to the left from the landing point.

An hour or so later I saw him again from the bedroom, sitting under Martins' oak-tree, scratching the back of his or her neck. It got up and trotted briskly away into the old den area and did not reappear. I had put food out but the fox did not go back for it - they never do, somehow. As if their daily schedule must be followed in order. Food has been found on two successive days in that spot during the morning, so it will be checked every morning, and that's that.

Description: Grizzle is a large fox. One can be deceived at this time of year by heavy winter pelage, I know: but Grizzle is not very thickly furred, but actually rather gawky looking. A bony, somewhat elderly, look. Fur on back is a good dark reddy-brown, almost conker colour. Tail thinnish but not apparently mangy. Long and with white tip and whitened along the length a bit, hence the name.

Of course we know what Grizzle is up to. At this time of year, every self-respecting fox is looking for a mate and a breeding territory, in either order. Here is a nice couple of overgrown gardens, one of them very secluded, full of cover, food regularly available nearby, and a history of use by foxes. There's underground earths adjoining, comfy lying-up spots, private playing areas, covered runs and escape routes. Jam for the first comer, in fact. Now bring on the talent and let's make whoopee!

And by the way, Happy New Year!