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Fox at the cross-roads

The song of blackbirds filled a wood at the foot of the Arigna Mountains, Roscommon as daylight began to fade and our foxwatching outing got under way.

With carefully placed footsteps we crept slowly forward, trying to avoid alerting wildlife to our presence.

The first stop was to be a slope overlooking a badger sett - not an obvious starting point for an evening's foxwatch but I soon understood that foxes and badgers sometimes share the same home. If a fox can get away with taking over some space in ready-made accommodation, he most certainly will.

Patience is a virtue for any budding foxwatcher. You must be prepared to wait for the animals to come out and this involves sitting motionless and in complete silence when viewing an earth or sett. It eventually pays off, however, and seems very much worthwhile as you catch a glimpse of a wild animal.

Cautiously poking its head out of the sett below us was a large adult badger. He sniffed the air and, content that everything was in order, emerged into the open. The beam of our torch picked up his movements as he scuttled across the floor of the wood. A night's foraging was about to commence and before long he was off again, disappearing into the undergrowth. It was a most thrilling moment. For those who have only ever read about badgers or seen them on TV, it is extremely satisfying to see one in real life just a few feet away.

Only four days previously a fox had been seen frequenting this very same sett but as we continued to wait, it became obvious that he no longer resided here. So what had happened to him?

According to my guide for the evening, Peter Akokan, that particular fox might have got killed on the road, been gunned down by hunters or, perhaps, simply moved onto a different earth.

Earlier on that day, he outlined that it is not uncommon for badgers and foxes to live in close proximity and taught me how to distinguish between a fox earth and badger sett.

A badger sett, he explained, will have a much wider opening than a fox earth. Also, outside a badger sett there will be clumps of old bedding material which has been discarded in sett cleaning operations (badgers like to keep their homes nice and tidy!); nearby as well there will be badger dung heaps. Another good way of telling what's living down the hole is to examine the mud around the entrance for foot prints. Fox prints and badger prints are very easy to tell apart .

Travelling back out of the woods and along the dark country lanes, Peter showed me a fox path - a route of noticeably flattened grass which is regularly travelled by foxes. It led from a field and into a ditch; in the hedge bordering the other side of the lane it resumed, leading into a forest.

An experienced fox watcher who has been studying and observing these fascinating creatures for over nine years, Peter knows exactly where to find them in this area. At the cross-roads close to his house, a pair of eyes glisten in the light of the torch. Imitating the sound of a hare in distress, he coaxes the fox into coming out into the open so we can get a better look. For some moments he seems interested but then, perhaps, smells a rat and jumps out of sight. Barking from the opposite direction signals the presence of more foxes.

Some fields away one is spotted marking its territory - spraying its scent onto the grass and bushes in an exercise which will warn other foxes that this area is not to be invaded.

There aren't many foxes out foraging for food on this particular night. This is, I am told, because since the night is cold and damp, worms - which form a significant part of the fox's diet - would be deeper underground in the relative warmth and so impossible for the foxes to get at. Perhaps the fox's primary source of food tonight is hares. Indeed a group of three are seen in a field but for the moment they are safe. When hares see a fox approaching, they stand up on their back legs to let the fox know he has been spotted and that they are ready to run if he attempts to come closer. These ones though seem at ease.

March is not an ideal time to go fox watching since the population is relatively low; cubs are just being born and wouldn't be emerging from below ground for a few more weeks. Nevertheless our evening was very fruitful in that we did see a good deal of foxes out and about. It was a learning experience and extremely rewarding to see these beautiful animals in action in their natural environment.

The foxwatch was to end at about one o'clock in the morning with a close-up view of foxes eating scraps which are regularly laid out for them. The foxes typically arrive for the meal around this hour but tonight they had come early for some reason. When we arrived to take our positions, the food was all gone. The phrase chomh cliste leis an sionnach came to mind! Our plan to see them eating was foiled but not to worry, there will be other opportunities!

Philip Kiernan

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