Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes): Adaptable farmland carnivore.
ON FIRST HEARING, YOU COULD BE MISTAKEN FOR THINKING that a wind-up toy was on the loose, amongst that scrubby area of vegetation on the other side of the field, a strange, guttural sound of clicks, snorts and squeaks resonating from the undergrowth. It may last for some time, a staccato frenzy that is often referred to as gekkering, or clicketting, and you may never see who or what is responsible for it; but rest assured, it is not a clockwork soldier. Amongst its twenty-eight known vocalisations, this most unusual contact call of the red fox is unlikely to be confused with any other mammal of the Norfolk countryside. If the month is January and you hear high-pitched nocturnal screams, it is most probably a dog fox and vixen -- paired-up some weeks before Christmas -- keeping in contact with each other. If it is a summer month, you may be witness to a quarrel between young cubs squabbling over a scrap of food
The farmland of Norfolk is ideal habitat for such an adaptable animal as the fox, a member of the dog family, the Canidae. The varied terrain and habitats that agricultural estates offer, from woodland copses to orchards, hedgerows and roadside verges, marshes with ditches and small streams ensure that sustenance throughout the year, albeit on an extremely varied diet, is never far away. Indeed, this diet may consist of rabbits, voles, mice, rats, birds of many kinds -- including the Squire's prized pheasants and partridges -- eggs, carrion, earthworms, fruits and berries, the list goes on; in good times, this resourceful canid doesn't let anything go to waste and provisions itself with a larder of surplus food, buried haphazardly in the ground, and returns to its secret cache when needs must.
After January's mating of dog and vixen, cubs are born during any week in March in an underground earth, dug out by the vixen some weeks in advance, and often possessing more than one entrance or exit. It is a far cry from the foxes' usual daytime lairs that are often nothing more than a dip in a grassy bank or hollow at the bottom of a gnarled tree. The cubs, at first, are blind and helpless, baring soft, dark, almost grey fur; their eyes, when they eventually open, are quite unlike the adults, being a light, smoky blue; when fully grown, they will take-on the deep amber of adulthood. By May, the four to five cubs will become adventurous and demanding, requiring their parents to supply a non-stop delivery of food. By the early autumn, when nearly fully grown, the young males will disperse into the countryside, leaving their female siblings to remain on family territory.
For all of the red foxes' efforts to avoid detection, it is often surprising how many clues to their presence they leave behind, particularly in the form of scent markings. However, Reynard -- as the fox is sometimes known -- lives in a world of scent and sound, almost capable of seeing with its nose, and relies far less on eyesight than might be imagined. The markers, in the form of grey, twisted droppings (scats) and pungent, acrid sprays of urine -- likened to a sweaty sock or a damp cellar -- are essential calling cards, marking out a home range that may encompass anything from as little as fifty acres to as much as two-hundred and fifty. Your best chances of observation are midwinter, when the male closely guards the vixen, often seen wandering together across open fields or, better still, early summer, before the vegetation is grown tall and young cubs are filled with playfulness outside their earth.
Non-breeding female relatives of the dominant vixen, known as barren vixens, often help with the rearing of her cubs; feeding, grooming and playing with them. In return for their altruism, they are allowed to remain on the controlling foxes territory throughout the year.
Stopping mid-stride whilst crossing a hay meadow, a red fox takes time to stand and stare at an interloper hidden in the hedgerow. Moments later it moves on, more concerned with the business of the morning.
Taking a momentary pause from a serious bout of play-fighting atop a hay bale, two well grown fox cubs are on full alert to the whereabouts of their siblings. Moments later, they continue their energetic wrestling amongst the temporary field furniture.
A fox cub, only a few weeks old, displays the curiosity inherent in most young animals. Moments later, after establishing I was not a threatening feature, it returns to the more serious matters of the day -- playing with its siblings.