Monday, 11 February 2013

Fantastic Mr Fox

It's been a while. Otter Country has swum away, a grown-up book now, making its sinuous way to an ever-widening audience. I spent six months travelling the length and breadth of the country giving talks and having discussions, and I've received otter-mail from both sides of Australia, otter-prayers and artwork, and (my favourite) I've been sent an origami otter and cub from Japan. Otters were recently declared extinct in Japan and some people are very sad about it over there. We need our large predators, few though they are in the UK. I know I'm not alone in thinking this, as there have been messages from around Britain and across the world, from the US and from New Zealand, and some otterly lovely reviews have rippled back. 

Provoked by an incident not with an otter but with a fox, this post is all about attentiveness, foxes and chickens, and the human/predator dynamic. 

Readers will remember that I have an inquisitive and trusting relationship with our small flock, some of whom are pictured below: 

These are the heavenly Wyandottes. Trillion, (left) Poppet (centre) and the Buff Orpington, Pimpernel (behind). Million and Twiglet, the two Gold-laced Wyandottes, have been featured before. These five are important to our family. They lay fabulous organic free range eggs, they enliven the garden landscape, keep me company on the days I work at home and their companionable presence is a joy. Each day we let them out, and they scratch and prink around the garden, happily trashing the flowerbeds and foraging in the hedge. They've excavated pottery I never knew existed from the garden soil, made secret nests, hidden pyramids of eggs in the long grass, and shamelessly pooed all over the path. So, they provide excellent manure as well as being the most entertaining pets one could wish for. Amongst the things I like about them are their constant conversation, their expressions of approval and disapproval, and their discerning eye always on the look-out for a tasty morsel. Their social gatherings are a delight; they arrange themselves on the largest flower pot for preening, or in a row on the wall, and they decamp en masse to the shelter of the porch if it is raining. Their keen hearing and eyesight mean that they are constantly on the alert, and the inquisitive watching of me at my desk seems to be part of this. Above all I love the sound of the rivery quibble and gossip of their voices, and the quirky procession around to the back garden when it is the correct time of day. 

But last night we-forgot-to-close-the-henhouse-door.  

: - ( 

Unforgivable, especially because that very evening we had been watching about foxes on the news, and talking about the clash of predator and people. 

It was dark - no moon, and only shadowy light from the edge of town. I opened my eyes to the sound of what appeared to be the flapping of giant wings. The word Fox came out of my mouth even before I was properly awake. In the garden, feathers were flying as if a giant pillow fight were taking place. I flung back the duvet and ran out into the frost to try to save my chicks. 

Barney was there first, and although he knew he was supposed to do something, he wasn't sure what. 

He stood by, concerned, but knowing there was nothing he could do. He must have seen the fox slip away, but I never did. Meanwhile, Poppet flailed across the lawn. Her neck had been broken and the flapping was simply a reflex. But that reflex was the one that had alerted me and probably saved her sisters' lives. 

We stood feeling like fools for a few moments with Poppet's drooping body, then made sure the others were safe. I felt like I should have let him take her; now next time he comes he'll remember to be even more sneaky.

What is it that goes through us when we have to defend our flock like this? I felt more alert than I had done for a long time, in awe at the unsettling stealth of the fox, and couldn't sleep for most of the night. What do we do when the wild, which we love, threatens what we also love? My heart was pulled in all directions. The fox is hungry, may have young to feed. I couldn't blame him. We blamed ourselves, in that case, for the carelessness, for not protecting our brood, and we got on with being sad for the loss of Poppet. 

I can't help wondering about the fox, and his hunger. He'll be back. And I admire him for that. The jizz of conflicting and prickly feelings he evoked reminds me again that the 'wild' is not 'out there', it's all around, inside us, enmeshed through us as well as through the town and the city. Thank goodness it's there, creeping, creative, adapting; disturbing, ferocious and resilient. I feel sorry for the baby that was hurt by a fox in London, and perplexed as to why people might want to tame these wild creatures. There's a little grief that we lost our friend last night, but not nearly as much grief as I would feel if that untameable community with all its fierce, bloody vitality was lost. And without it, wouldn't we wither?

In a moment of inattentiveness that night we slipped up, but we learned something. As Leonard Cohen says in his Anthem: 'There's a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in.'

So here's a thought shining through that crack: it is miraculous that in this crowded little island there are still top predators living alongside and amongst us. We evolved alongside these creatures and we need them more than ever now; we need to notice their hunger, and their struggles, and be attentive to them, as well as to our own. But we also need to keep our distance, and be mindful that close contact with us means that many of the predator kind are persecuted, driven to the edges or lost forever. 

We also need all those who strive to clarify the misunderstandings that so often happen, and to protect and preserve our wary connection with our wilder kin. As David Abram says: 

'This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams - these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.'

One American father of the conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, said a similar thing in the opening to his thoughtful treatise on preserving the wild, A Sand County Almanac: 

'There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot... Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things wild, natural and free.'

This was written in 1948. Are we still taking some of these 'wild, natural and free' things for granted? What would Leopold say if he were still alive today? 

Across town, I hear that chill music, the high bark of the vixen as she calls to her mate. They too are our family. Let them be left.

'Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.' 


  1. I often wonder how wildlife photographers can spend months, years even, recording the rarest of species, occasionally building a quasi relationship with the animals concerned - and then stand by as some tragedy or other unfolds, and somehow worse, they continue to record it. A tough ethic I think.

  2. So beautiful to read a post that is honest and real about that amazing wild world out there... despite your loss. I wish more people thought like this. But of course I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for stopping by my blog.