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Welcome to the first issue of Foxwatch, a newsletter covering all things fox-related.
Foxwatch Ireland is a brand new group whose function is two-tiered. Primarily, we aim to highlight the sheer beauty of foxes by inviting you to join us in watching foxes in the wild. Our second aim is to give the fox a whole new image. We will work to finally dispel all the myths and misconceptions that surround this, one of Ireland's most beautiful and intelligent wild creatures.
Rescued foxcub, Charlie, did not like people very much and especially people trying to photograph him. He did like rabbit, however, and would defend a piece with great ferocity from other fox cubs or human fingers.
|You might not think it from this picture, but Charlie was not photogenic!|
Many cubs looking like Charlie are sometimes thought to be abandoned but in most cases they are only exploring some distance from their earth.
At these times, the vixen will start to leave them on their own for longer periods while out hunting.
Each issue, the foxwatch diary will bring you a close-up view of the activities of foxes in the wild and, we hope, encourage you to get out there and try a bit of foxwatching of your own.
I got myself into a comfortable position overlooking an earth I know at the edge of a woodland. It was difficult to be quiet while shuffling around, because of all the bits of twigs and leaf litter covering the ground.
A warm, calm evening had been a sunny day. A slight breeze blew towards me. Thankfully, there were no midges around to bite me - they normally come about mid-May.
A cub face appeared at the den entrance at about 8.55pm followed by more shortly afterwards. Five came out altogether and were all about four or five weeks old.
These might not end up as dark as a litter born in this earth three years ago for there are already patches of red around their little faces.
The cubs slowly made their way to the smaller den entrance where they started silently playing. They toppled around like little furry toys, play-biting and trying to push each other over.
A large barn owl swooped over me at about 9.10pm. The cubs didn't notice it but then at 9.15 two fallow deer appeared in the wood and, on seeing the cubs, made their way over out of curiosity.
The cubs felt unsure about the deer and went below ground.
Then one deer noticed me and stared suspiciously. I kept still for I didn't want them grunting out their warning cries and sprinting off noisily through the wood.
They moved on in the end but by then it was getting too dark to see anything clearly so I decided to leave. As I left I went up to one of the holes and could hear the cubs moving around underground with little squeaks and squabbles.
There was a great stench when I sniffed at the entrance. Must have been plenty of rotten carrion down there - a sure sign of well-fed cubs!
Westmeath Watch - a close-up of foxes foraging for food
An evening of foxwatching in Westmeath brought myself and Peter to a wood where I had previously seen evidence of badger activity.
In the knowledge that foxes and badgers often occupy the same territories, we travelled into the heart of the wood, moving slowly and quietly to avoid disturbing any wildlife.
The badger setts I had seen before were still there but with no obvious sign of life now, we decided to try our luck in a field bordering the wood.
Peter shone his high-powered torch out over the land and it wasn't long before the beam picked up some movement. There were certainly foxes about.
As a steady drizzle began to fall, we walked along the edge of the field and soon saw three foxes.
By all appearances they were in the process of searching for food. The torch light picked up one fox on a hillside who was digging its muzzle into the soft ground. I pointed over and Peter confirmed that this fox was foraging for worms, using his paws and muzzle to root them out.
Another fox had his sights on a bigger prize. Moving about among the thistles and high grass were lots of rabbits. At one point, a rabbit came within five feet of where we were standing. It didn't notice our presence as we stood looking down at it. On this occasion we got closer to the rabbits than the fox did.
The fox was slowly edging towards an apparently unsuspecting prey - a perfect demonstration of a fox's approach to catching rabbits. The aim is to catch them off guard before pouncing. The last thing a fox wants is a lengthy chase that wastes energy and has no guarantee of a reward. As we watched, it looked like this fox would have to be content with worms too.
In the end, the rabbits dashed away, most obviously having seen the fox. As the fox gave up, so too did we. The drizzle had turned into a heavy downpour and the shelter of the wood became hard to resist!
Rescued and released
Meet some of the foxes we have had the pleasure of rescuing and rehabilitating.
Tuam: Tuam was given to the Galway SPCA by a boy who fed him on mashed potato and as a result the cub was suffering from malnutrition. He was named Tuam because it was there that Mary from the GSPCA met me with the cub.
When I peered into the box I saw a very small, scrawny, shy cub. On lifting him I noticed there were bald patches and scaly skin around his body and tail. At first I suspected mange until the vet told me otherwise.
Although only the size of a 3-4 week old cub, his eyes, ears, fur and face were all well developed.
After feeding him on a proper diet for a few weeks, his fur and skin looked a lot healthier. He was a very shy cub and releasing him to the wild wasn't at all difficult.
Henry: Henry was thought to be a lost, half-grown fox cub. He was found lying motionless in a ditch in Mullingar and he was in fact suffering from exhaustion but was otherwise found to be in perfect health.
With foxhunting activities taking place in the general area, we wondered if he had been chased by hounds before collapsing with exhaustion.
The good people who rescued him had him checked over by a vet and he recovered quickly while staying with us. After a few days, he was ready for release.
Foxwatch tips and advice
When looking for a suitable area for fox watching it is always a good idea to first do a search for signs of fox activity.
Paw prints: Paw prints are the easiest way to determine whether there are foxes in a particular area. Fox tracks are usually fairly easy to distinguish from those of dogs because they are smaller and more oval in shape with the claws pointing more outward. Check for fox tracks in soft soil and around the entrance of earths.
Scats: Scats, or fox droppings, are often deposited on rocks or other object but can also be found along regularly used trails. If you come across a well used trail with fresh tracks, then look for scats too. They are most abundant along fox paths during the winter months and also are to be found around the entrances to rabbit warrens. Very small fox scats around an earth are a sure sign of cubs.
Fur: Quite often, tufts of fur are caught on barbed wire fencing where a fox has passed under it to make its way along a well used path.
Scent: The scent of fox can be detected when walking on a country lane on an early winter's morning. It is where a fox has recently passed and urinated. The smell has a strong, sweet, musky odour. I personally find it very pleasant but some don't. Occupied earths sometimes have this distinct foxy smell.
Landowners: Another good way of discovering the whereabouts of foxes is to ask local landowners who will be able to tell you if there are earths on their land. Remember, ask their permission before beginning a foxwatch on their land. In urban areas, good people to ask about fox activity are night-time security guards.
Listen and learn: If you don't mind patrolling fields or country lanes after dark, you will soon find out if foxes are around by listening for their distinctive call. The first fox yells and barks of courtship can be heard in December, though these are few and far between. Towards the end of January up until May, foxes can be heard barking regularly each evening as darkness falls. The bark can best be described as a "wow, wow, wow" sound.
All your pre-watch research is sure to pay off and will leave you with the virtual guarantee of seeing foxes in action. Enjoy your foxwatch!
Dogged by myths
Myth 1: "Foxes are ruthless sheep killers"
The truth: Foxes are NOT ruthless sheep killers.
"No matter what people think, foxes seldom kill and eat young lambs."
("Heritage Highlights" - National Parks and Wildlife Service)
"The main challenges to the new-born lamb are concerned with nutrition, temperature and infectious disease."
"A great deal many allegations of lamb killing are based on insufficient or even non-existent evidence. When interviewing farmers, I found that in some cases, a dead, unwounded animal or the mere disappearance of a lamb were attributed to the work of the fox."
(James Fairley in "An Irish Beast Book")
Foxes on the runway
I received a telephone call last May from the Galway SPCA, asking me to contact the air traffic control at Carrowmore Airport in County Galway.
Apparently, parent foxes were getting in the way of planes taking off and landing while bringing food back to their cubs in an earth on the airport grounds.
To get some advice on how to tackle this, I contacted Martin Hemmington of the National Fox Welfare Society in England and he told me that a deterrent would be the best solution.
On contacting the air traffic control I was told that one parent fox had already been killed while crossing the runway and that they were thinking of contacting the Wildlife Service to deal with it.
Anyway, I gave instructions on what to do and that if things didn't work out to contact me again. Whether it worked or not I couldn't say for I didn't hear from them since. There are deterrents which work well on foxes and are originally for cats and dogs. These are available in most garden centres.
Although this earth was on the grounds of a busy airport, it is not uncommon for vixens to have their earths in even more unusual places.
Vixens have been known to raise their families in graveyards. There have been a lot of reports of urban foxes in Bristol having earths in strange places - one raised cubs in the crown of a large oak tree and another wild vixen was said to enter an old house through a cat flap and run down the hallway to squeeze through a gap in the kitchen floorboards to feed her cubs.
Foxhunt "code of conduct" allows cruelty to continue
A code of conduct supposedly drawn up to take some of the cruelty out of foxhunting has made no changes to protect foxes from blood sport cruelty.
The code came about after Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh, stated that he found earthstopping (the blocking of earths) and the digging out of foxes to be unacceptable.
Following the publication of the so-called code of conduct, Minister Walsh expressed his satisfaction that his concerns had been addressed.
A very strange response considering that the code has not eliminated the digging out of foxes or earthstopping.
According to the code: "If following the commencement of a dig, it becomes apparent that the fox is inaccessible...it may as an exceptional measure be bolted." This is just one instance where dig-outs are referred to as acceptable.
Foxhunters are also urged to continue blocking up earths to prevent foxes from escaping underground: "Earthstopping shall be allowed...to assist in the finding of foxes above ground."
Minister Walsh's response makes one wonder if he even bothered to read the finished document. Contact Minister Joe Walsh at the Department of Agriculture, Agriculture House, Kildare Street, Dublin 2. Ask him to take some real action to protect foxes from the cruelty of foxhunts.