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Three feet from a fox
For all budding wildlife watchers, nature reserves or wildlife parks present the ideal starting point. Being protected from hunters - officially at least - wildlife will be more in abundance, thus making it easier to locate and observe resident creatures.
With the virtual guarantee of spotting some foxes, it was to Lough Key Forest Park in Roscommon that myself and veteran foxwatcher, Peter Akokan, travelled on a pleasantly mild night in late September.
With high powered torch light, binoculars and camera, we set off into the forest with high hopes of meeting some of our vulpine friends. Some way along the muddy pathway, Peter abruptly stopped, directed the torch to the left and there was our first glimpse of forest life - a small woodmouse moving about around the trunk of a tree.
The path led us to the edge of the forest to a field where cows were the only animals initially spotted. When the hillocks in the distant were swept with the light, however, a pair of eyes sparkled back at us almost immediately, indicating the presence of our first fox.
Slowly placing his fingers against his mouth, Peter imitated the sound of a rabbit in distress, a technique that proved effective on our previous watch. At that, it became obvious that we were going to be in luck again. The greenish eyes started moving and the dim outline of a fox trotted down the hill in our direction. Peter made sure the beam was not directed straight at the fox but rather at the ground just in front of it, thus preventing the animal from being dazzled.
With its journey forward blocked by a river, that particular fox came no closer and with the torch extinguished again, on we silently trudged. No stepping on branches. No brushing against branches. And absolutely no whispering. In the stillness of the night, the slightest sound would alert the wildlife.
Before long we came to a gate on a small bridge and from this angle, we could again see our fox. The quacking of ducks on the river made me wonder if he had his next meal in sight. According to Peter, if the ducks were on the shore, they may be in danger; otherwise the fox would look for alternatives to getting wet. Bats fluttered about overhead as we focused on the fox foraging for food in the field. When it had disappeared from sight we carefully climbed over the gate.
A short distance away, we halted. Peter had spotted something. Again he made the sharp, rapidly-repeated sound of an injured rabbit. The idea was to coax the fox forward towards what appears to be an easy meal. The head of another fox in the field was quickly raised - he was certainly interested. But would he be too suspicious to venture closer?
As we waited, the sound splitting the silence, the fox began trotting towards us. Slowly at first and then more briskly. Incredibly, he kept coming nearer and nearer. It was hard to believe that a wild creature that is normally so wary of humans was so close. Just three feet in front of us, the fox stopped. It quickly realised there was no rabbit, only two humans hiding behind a light and he didn't waste time darting away, stopping once to look back before running back to foraging for worms. Not wanting to distract him further, we altered direction.
It was the inexperience of this seven or eight month old fox that brought him so close to us. Peter highlighted how, under much different circumstances, this naiveté might have cost the fox its life. Shooters sometimes use similar techniques to lure foxes out into the open before mercilessly gunning them down. This too provided a grim reminder of how foxhunters with hounds persecute these beautiful creatures - chasing them to exhaustion, savagely digging them out and urging dogs to rip them to bits.
Our exhilarating encounter with the fox made the long trek through the forest more than worthwhile but to my delight there was another treat in store.
In the next field lay a wildlife watcher's dream. In all directions, eyes reflected the beam of the light. A fox here, a hare there; a badger too. And in the far distance, a herd of fallow deer grazing. The field was alive. With the breeze blowing towards us from behind, Peter rightly predicted that once the human scent reached the badger's sensitive nose, he would be off. The foxes and deer weren't quite so shy and we were able to remain at the perimeter of the field for some time marvelling at the wonderful scene before us.