When you see a fox, what do you feel? More than any other animal in Britain, the fox can elicit a cocktail of opinion and emotion. It is rarely a blank canvas. Perhaps you see the fox as vermin, a pest to be shot as quickly as possible, a rude interloper who doesn’t belong in the human space. Perhaps you see a beautiful creature, a cute pet to be fed, or a flash of fiery wildness in a depleted landscape. Perhaps you see a beautiful creature that, well, still needs to be shot or managed, to protect game birds or even threatened species such as avocets or lapwings. Perhaps you see a cunning rogue waiting to be hunted, or ‘Charlie’ as he is often called in the hunting literature. You might feel irritated if a fox once killed your hens. You might feel elated to witness the largest British carnivore left in Britain, now the days of the wolf, bear and lynx are long gone. You might even feel a little frightened: foxes are wild animals, after all, and can create primal reactions despite their small size.
The complicated relationship we have with the fox in Britain was made clear to me at a young age. One side of my family traditionally had a fondness for hunting, particularly my late grandfather, but it didn’t follow that foxes were hated. In fact, the fox was more of a character to be admired and even respected. In the front room of a house in Scotland I often holidayed in as a child, fox ‘masks’ lined the wall, the taxidermied prizes of a successful day out hunting, while in a nearby study a beloved fox puppet – ‘Foxy’ – sat, often brought down for merriment and play with the young grandchildren. It was a curious ambiguity that intrigued me from a young age and drove my investigation into why the fox is so loved and loathed in my book, Foxes Unearthed.
For city-dwellers – and I am currently a reluctant one – the fox will symbolise a different array of concepts to those in rural areas. One neighbour may delight in seeing cubs gambolling around in the garden and even feed a local vixen with sandwiches at dusk. If elderly and lonely, the fox might be the only living creature he sees for days.
The same fox may wander next door and find someone even friendlier, say, the actress Joanna Lumley, who invites Reynard to relax on the sofa. The next day, our fox, feeling bolder, decides to explore the gastronomic options in the next house along but, sadly, its luck has run out. Mr Noble loathes the smell and the vixen’s chilling shriek. He calls up pest control and swiftly writes a cheque to have the animal trapped and shot the following night. This conflicting dynamic is played out regularly on the streets of our towns and cities. In the countryside, attitudes and agendas can be even more complex because they involve those who live off the land and, crucially, the historic sport of hunting. Farmers clash with foxes because they want to protect livestock; foxes clash with gamekeepers who want to protect poults for the local shoot; the shoot conflicts with the hunting fraternity, who want to keep foxes alive so they can hunt them. This final tension is nothing new.
In a Sporting Review magazine published in 1869, a hunter called Captain Percy Williams is quoted as saying, ‘Pheasants have brought in their train envy, hatred and malice, have dispossessed the fox and demoralised the country.’
But why is our relationship with the fox so complicated in Britain? It’s partly because the hunt and the tensions it inspires are unique to this country.
Fox hunting became part of the economy and cultural fabric in the 1800s, embedded in rural identity. Thanks to the longstanding zeal for hunting of all kinds, a series of laws had already been put into place that gradually made the British landscape particularly well suited for the activity. William the Conqueror set up the Forest Laws which protected quarry animals from death and their habitats from destruction and, following the Enclosure Acts, grassland spread, which was easier to gallop across. The British took their style of hunting on horseback around the world but it never quite took off as it had here.
There were other factors. It is possible horse breeding in Britain led to hunts taking place at breakneck speed. After the near invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth I was determined to improve her cavalry, particularly focusing on the quality and speed of the horses themselves. Three Eastern stallions – the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb and the Byerley Turk – were imported and, soon, the great English thoroughbred was reared, the fastest and bravest horse in the world. These magnificent new breeds meant that fox hunting could evolve from a slow, standard plod to a high-speed national obsession. The thrill element was born. Hound breeding also took place specifically in Britain, and improved as the eighteenth century drew on.
Perhaps fox hunting prospered because it supported a prevailing idea of British identity: that of the gallant but dominating survivor. The manners and etiquette of early hunting chimed perfectly with Victorian society and the idea of the ‘manly gentleman’.
Unlike the historical identity politics of hunting, the fox, in itself, is actually a simple beast. it is certainly a brilliant opportunist, capable of exploiting a huge range of ecological habitats and environments, and this is one of the reasons why it is so widespread around the world. But let’s take its diet: it is not a fussy eater and will adapt to location and season. In spring, it will pull earthworms out of the ground like strands of spaghetti, sometimes hundreds in one night. In May, it will snaffle strawberries or hoover up crane-fly larvae – ‘leatherjackets’. In the high summer, it favours crunchy beetles until autumn’s abundance of sweet plums and blackberries. Of course, the occasional fried chicken bone or sandwich crust might feature too.
But animals cannot speak and so we speak for them. We have assigned the fox anthropomorphic levels of intelligence, cunning, malice and even psychotic intentions to its simple behaviour. We say that it ‘kills for fun’ and we call it ‘marauding’ when, really, it’s just going about its biological business. Trickster Reynard is a fiction, as is ‘Charlie’ the worthy opponent of the local hunt. But how fascinating that, over centuries, we’ve built the fox into an emblem, a character and a symbol to satisfy a need. Above all, our relationship with the fox is complicated because humans are complicated.
Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones is published by Elliott & Thompson and out now