Capturing the wily fox is a hit-and-miss affair

Robert Fuller’s painting of a fox in snow

Robert Fuller’s painting of a fox in snow

First published in Columnists

Artist and wildlife expert Robert Fuller heads out to track a tricky fox

FOR some reason, I always seem to get the most interesting sightings just as I’m heading for home after a long day out.

Last month this happened following a day in Lincolnshire where I had been photographing short eared owls for a painting I am planning.

Dusk was just settling over the snowy landscape when I spotted something moving by a straw stack.

I stopped my car just in time to see a fox slinking round the back of the stack out of sight. It reappeared a hundred yards away, heading towards a long straight drainage channel on the edge of a field; almost the size of a small canal. I was all fingers and thumbs getting my camera out.

Meanwhile, the fox passed through a hedge and re-appeared on the bank of the channel. It turned and looked at me in a nonchalant manner before continuing down the bank. Here, it cocked its leg to mark out its territory.

Suddenly it froze, head pointing downwards and ears up. I guessed it was ‘mousing’ or more likely had heard a vole moving under the snow.

It repositioned its legs, ready to pounce, and pinpointed the position of its prey before it sprang high up into the air and dove into the snow, front feet first. Its nose was buried deep in the snow while its thick brush tail wagged from side to side as it hunted.

Then the fox lifted its head back out of the snow, and shook it. Bits of reed fell from its mouth – it had missed. It continued onwards and I followed it on foot as it set out on this night of mischief. I used the hedge as cover to get closer.

Wild country foxes are tricky subjects to approach but there is no harm in trying. By the time I caught up with the wily creature it was watching a flock of starlings bathing and drinking under a bridge where the water hadn’t frozen.

Stealthfully, the fox crossed the bridge, but the birds were far too wise and fast for him. They flew into a nearby willow tree and settled down to roost.

The fox continued on the opposite side of the channel. I ducked back through the hedge to keep out of sight as I followed. After a hundred yards, I crept back through and found him on point, looking at the ground again.

This time he was after a mole. The dark soil of the freshly dug mole hill stood out against the whiteness of the snow. A twig snapped beneath my foot and I froze as the fox looked my way. Luckily some movement underground refocused its attention.

He paused, repositioned his feet and cocked his head to one side.

By this time it was too dark to take photographs, but I was enjoying watching. After a tense few minutes, the fox sniffed the molehill, raked over it with its front paw and then, realising that the mole must have escaped, cocked its leg peevishly on the molehill. It was as if it was saying: “If I can’t eat you I’ll leave you with this smell instead.”

As the fox trotted off, I decided to try to keep up. But as I stepped forward my foot cracked noisily on an ice puddle hidden under the snow.

The next footstep made the same sound and I was afraid I had scared off the fox.

Sure enough as I reappeared out of the hedge, it had vanished. I could see hundreds of yards in each direction but it had outwitted me.

A silhouette in the distance caught my eye and I checked it out with my binoculars. It was a roe deer browsing.

I was out in the open now and the deer was quick to spot me and quickly pronked into some cover.

I turned to head back and crossed the bridge retracing the fox’s movements.

I soon picked up its fresh tracks and as I approached the molehill, I caught its unmistakably pungent smell.

I crossed the bridge where the starlings had gone to roost. They were silhouetted against the sky, which was now lit up with stars.

It was well below freezing and the snow was developing a crust.

Imprinted into it with perfect precision was the shape left by the fox’s head where it had pounced for a vole

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