Tuesday, 19 February 2013

February fog

A thrushes song reverberates through the thick fogged air from the clouded top of an ivy-clad tree. From my right, comes the persistent, high-pitched squeaking of blue tits, and the distant muffled barking of a dog from a garden beyond. It is just after 9 am on a Monday morning in February. In the background is the ever present whoosh of traffic along the main road, whilst hidden in the fog jackdaws and crows squabble over stolen cattle fodder. I am standing by a small copse, on the edge of a rough lane that runs between council housing estate, and farmland. In the summer the fields are head-high with maize, harvested in the autumn and stored to feed over-wintering beef cattle, that churn the frozen mud around ice rimmed feeders, and sigh heavy clouds of fogged breath in the weak sun. Further along the track is a fishing lake. There has been a herons nest here the past 2 years, but it failed last year due to untimely storms. A single nest in a tall alder tree that leans on the far bank of the lake, it is an unusual breeding spot for this bird which usually nests in large colonies. Today the fog is too thick to see the tree from the track so I make my way along the side of the lake. It is hard to tell where fog ends and water starts, except for a few blurred and ghostly reflections. Great tits and blue tits call from alder and willow and a wren scolds me from waterside rushes. As I reach the end of the lake the heron tree emerges from the fog. It is empty. I'm tempted to wait awhile but soon the frost and fog start to claim my fingers and nose, and I turn away, burying my hands deep in my pockets. The herons are late, they usually return before valentines day, but half a week has past since then. I am being scolded again by the wren in the rushes and decide its time to go home.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Drawing lines

Anyone in the UK listening to the news on the radio this week will probably be aware of the most recent story featuring an urban family’s close and unwelcome encounter with a wild animal, resulting in injury and anger and sparking a wide debate into a controversial subject; are urban foxes a danger and what should be done?

Before I write any more, I wish to point out that as I have not heard every detail of the situation mentioned, or any other similar situation, I will refrain from commenting on the specific case mentioned above, and any following opinions are solely mine, based on a general overview of human interactions with wildlife in my limited experience. These views are not set in stone and as and when new evidence is revealed I would happily accept and adapt to new points of view.
There have been several incidents reported in the news in the past few years, of close encounters between people and urban foxes. In some cases the evidence is tenuous, others undisputed  and the subjects potential for sparking debate and controversy means it is a story eagerly snapped up by the press.
In every story, people are quick to blame the fox, call for a cull, hold the humans affected up as victims of cruel and evil circumstances. I do not dispute the fact that the situation is far from welcome or not insignificant, and my thoughts and sympathies are with every family affected by such an encounter. However, it appears to me that there may be more to the story than simply foxes being ‘evil’ or ‘dangerous’.    

Foxes are wild animals. Wild animals are not human; they do not live their lives by the same set of rules and morals that we do. Therefore, when our worlds overlap, there will undoubtedly be occasional conflict. In cities, our worlds and that of the urban fox overlap almost entirely. The nature of the fox has allowed it to evolve and adapt to the landscape we have created, just as it would adapt to a change in the rural landscape.
Foxes are omnivorous, intelligent and opportunistic. That means they will eat a wide variety of food, (although prefer to be carnivorous); a useful trait in cities when a freshly caught rabbit is not always available. They are smart, they learn quickly and remember. And the fox, rural or urban is opportunistic; it will investigate and make the most out of any opportunity it finds; any new chance for food or increased territory, increased chance of survival of itself and its species.

We have tarmacked fields and ploughed down woodland, replacing trees with skyscrapers and ponds with playgrounds. Where once there was a species that preyed on rabbits and voles of grassy banks, there is now the urbanised fox that stalks scraps in bins, hunts rats behind warehouses and, alongside a number of urbanised badgers, savours hand-picked treats of kitchen leftovers, chicken carcases and dog food from half the gardens in the street. These foxes pass within feet of humans and cross busy roads, and find that they are not shot or chased by hounds or shooed from the garden by an angry two-legged broom-wielding home-owner. Urbanised foxes have nothing to fear save the odd feral cat that takes a dislike, the speeding lorry on the outskirts of town, or the trophy-dog straining on its chain and studded collar. A predator armed with teeth and claws, and an ability to run fast and squeeze through small spaces, it can take on the investigation of opportunities confident that it can rely on its instincts of fight or flight if things go wrong.

With the encouragement of TV programs featuring the cute and cuddly, we see the beauty and wonder of foxes and forget the wild side. We invite them into our world, feed them on our back doorsteps, and deny their true wild nature. When these wild creatures break the tamed image of them that we have created and follow their opportunistic instincts in a way that doesn't follow our human rules and morals that we have imposed upon the world and everything in it, we suddenly realise that we have a wild predator far too close for comfort.  And we blame the fox.

We have created in our cities, the perfect habitat, the prefect niche for the urban fox and they are here to stay. A fact we have to accept.
I can’t help but admire foxes, for their beauty, their intelligence, and their ability to thrive in our human world where so many other species struggle. As a conservationist I believe it is important that we protect conserve and enhance the natural environment and the species within it, including urban habitats. With any animal species you care to mention from deer to squirrel, goose or lion, from elephant to toad, to rabbit or even ant, localised problems can arise both in rural and urban areas, stemming from conflict with human needs, the needs of other co-existing species, or the actions of rogue individuals. Although as a general rule I dislike the killing of animals, in certain situations the very carefully monitored culling of individuals or controlling of populations can be the best answer for the benefit and improved health and future of the species as a whole.

We are part of the pattern of nature and human interaction with wildlife is vital to its’ future and our own well being  it sparks wonder, curiosity, even love. But where do we draw the line? Urban foxes and indeed badgers have adapted themselves and done very well without our help. Do these highly skilled opportunistic scavengers and hunters, who are probably better adapted to survive on the city streets than ourselves, really need us to feed them in our gardens, purposely invite them inside the boundaries of our homes? By interacting so closely, are we risking tipping the balance, inviting conflict which will then reflect badly on the fox and spark hatred and violence towards the species?
In the long run, are we just killing it with kindness?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A Moment on West Sussex Downs, Early February

The raucous rooks have not yet returned to their tree-top citadels. 
They will arrive with the spring, to sit, side by-side in their pairs or wheel and weave in the blue sky above in gay abandon, like coal-dust tossed on the swirling winds, while a stage below wild daffodils dance between white anemones, dainty flowers shining in the dappled sunshine, like the stars in the sky at night. 
Here and there are bullet-scarred yews and ankle-deep drifts of last autumn’s leaves in weather-camouflaged craters; the faded signature of wartime auxiliary forces training and waiting with baited breath, preparing for the invasion that never came.  
Now the only gunfire is that of game shoots on frosty mornings, hunting the pheasants that scatter from the woodland edge like erratic clockwork toys, oblivious of the knowledge that their existence and indeed their death, helps secure the future and conservation of the seemingly natural, yet carefully managed landscape of which their woodland roosts and grain scattered fields are an integral part.   

The wood where the rookery hangs looks out across a winter-blue hued view, where sunlight puddles in golden pools, and cloud shadows scud across fields of frost-torn mud and pastures bare, dark moss-green firs nestled amongst soft lichen-grey deciduous woods.
Higher up the hill the trees lose their grip on the thin, drought-prone soil, and Kipling’s whale-backed downs rise up to meet the sky. Here once sheep, for wool and meat herded wide, now not shearling drove but plough-carved furrow cuts the flint-jewelled chalk. 
On those steep slopes on which even the bravest tractors do not venture, thorn and bramble adorn the turf that is grazed by rabbit, deer and few remaining sheep, thyme-fragranced and orchid-studded in summer. 

Between darkening clouds and fingers of sunshine that reach across the hillsides, a skylark hangs, half way between heaven and earth, a singing speck on a parachute of song, windblown notes dripping with promise.

The rain starts falling with a spit and a spat. A pitter-patter. Tap. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Spring Sunshine and Celandines

It is mild today, but the forecast is for cold weather towards the end of the week. For now however, a finger of sunshine just creeps into the back garden beyond my window, bathing the back fence and the patch in the border where the pulmonaria (or Lungwort) grows, its early spring buds ready to burst in time for the emergence of the earliest bumblebees.

 Primroses have been flowering for weeks and I spotted my first celandine flowers on the first day of February, not in my garden but on a sunny bank just along the road where I always see the first ones of the year, little golden stars peeking from between the green heart-shaped leaves, just behind your feet at the bus-stop.

The sunshine is picking out each and every twig of the large oak tree that looms as a constant, comforting presence from behind the roof of the garage, beyond the end of the garden. There are always plump, pink-breasted wood pigeons perched amongst its branches, digesting crops full of stolen maize silage from the farm across the fields. A flock of jackdaws passes noisily overhead, calling to each other and wheeling in the blue sky, full of the joys of spring.

If the weather forecasters are right, the winter will return for another blast of cold winds and sleety rain and ice before the end of the week. But for now I will enjoy this rare treat of an early spring day of sunshine and celandines, content in the knowledge that even if the winter weather does return, it will pass, the days will warm and spring will be triumphant in the end.