Friday, November 27, 2015

Fox Family Occupy Unused Section of Badger Sett

I painted this after photographing some fox cubs that had occupied an unused part of a badger sett.

I first noticed the presence of foxes after walking over a local badger sett checking it for signs of life and spotting a half-gnawed pheasant leg poking out of one of the holes. I realised a fox must be using part of the sett for a den. My suspicions were confirmed when I then saw the remains of rabbits and the wing of a young rook because this meant that it was very likely a vixen was there with cubs. Urban foxes can be easy to photograph because they are so habituated to people. I have had great success watching them in this way, although for me it does feel slightly like ‘cheating’. 

But properly wild foxes in the countryside can be very difficult subjects to study indeed. I have been outwitted by them on several occasions. If a vixen catches the scent of a human anywhere near her den she might move the cubs, so I knew I had to be very careful and keep any disturbance to an absolute minimum.

The foxes were living at one end of the badger sett, which is large and ranges across the top of a daleside and rabbits were also living in one section. It isn't uncommon for foxes to occupy badger setts, although if you grew up reading Beatrix Potter and read The Tale of Mr Todd, in which Old Brock the badger is known for staying in Mr Todd the fox's home, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the other way around!

Just 25 yards away is a large, lone sycamore tree. I decided that this would make an ideal place for a hide. Since I knew my scent would already be around I decided to act fast and put a hide up that very afternoon. I made a platform five metres up the tree and put my hide on top of it.

The height gave me added advantage, because from there my scent was more likely to disperse.
But although the sett was clearly occupied with foxes and rabbits there was little sign of badger activity. I knew there was another sett just 80 yards lower down the daleside, so I headed off to see if anything was happening there.

There were plenty of signs of badger activity in this lower sett. Freshly dug huge spoil heaps marked out the entrance holes. Resting on top of these heaps were piles of bedding having a good airing before being dragged back down the holes at a later date. There were plenty of tracks leading up the dale marking out the badgers’ pathways. And I was delighted to see that the grass was flattened all around the holes – a good indicator that there might be several cubs in residence. What luck – two occupied setts, one containing a fox family the other a badger clan. I might even be able to see both badger and fox at the same time!

I was even more pleased when just as I was leaving the heavens opened and it rained hard for over an hour, washing away any sign that I had been there. Things were looking good.

The next evening I headed to the new hide. But I got distracted when I spotted four badger cubs emerge from the sett lower down. They were with two adults and since it was only 8pm and still very light I couldn’t resist staying there to photograph them first. I watched them as they the adults groomed the cubs and the cubs played together in the evening light and an hour passed before I remembered the fox den.

The light was fading by now and I was worried that I was a little late. I like to be in my hide before the cubs emerge for the evening. I began to feel a little annoyed with myself for leaving it so late, when I spotted something flash down the hole as I approached. I hoped I hadn’t frightened the vixen off and so I climbed the ladder as quietly as possible and settled down to wait. But within half an hour a cub tentatively poked his head up.

It was followed by another and then a third. It wasn’t long before the three cubs began to romp around but, frustratingly, it was too dark to take any pictures. Watching the fox cubs was even more interesting than watching the badger cubs. The fox cubs were so playful, chasing each other and doing practice pounces even at this young age. The fox cubs played outside the den until nearly 11pm but the vixen didn’t appear – it could be by now that she had already left the den preferring the peace and quiet of living alone again, albeit close by, and just returning from time to time to check on and feed her increasingly independent cubs. It was pitch black so I headed home.

Spurred on by having had such a good sighting I woke at 3am the next morning and climbed into my hide carrying some three stone of equipment up the ladder in the black- dark. As it started to get light I heard a blackbird chink its alarm call and I quickly checked my camera settings just in case the vixen was on its way. But there was nothing.

About half an hour later I heard a crow calling. Crows will often mob foxes, so again I got my cameras ready and waited expectantly for the vixen to appear. But yet again there was nothing and as the morning wore on this pattern of expectation followed by disappointment continued. A chaffinch called out in alarm, but again it led to nothing. Then a great-tit did the same. Then the crow flew to the ground and began to peck over the scraps of food left by the foxes.

Watching the crow I realised that he was very nervous around the holes and rightly so as the vixen and the crow are arch enemies.I finally gave up around 8am having seen nothing but this darn crow. After my late night and very early start I had only had three and a half hours sleep and I felt quite despondent.

But I was determined not to give up and that evening I went back. But again I got distracted by the badgers on my way so this time, instead of arriving late and risking disturbing the fox cubs I went back to my car and watched one of the cubs with my telescope.

The next night I got to my hide at 7.45pm. I could see the badger clan scratching and playing in the valley below and I was torn between the two, wanting to be in two places at once. But I really wanted to see the fox cubs so I stuck it out, waiting and hoping that this time I would be lucky. But they didn’t appear and I went home feeling cheated yet again. I wasn’t able to get to the hide again for a week as I had a lot to get ready for my summer exhibition which was due to open that week.

Once the exhibition was in full swing and the first wave of visitors had gone home I returned to the den. Again the badgers were out early, but this time I headed straight for the hide and was rewarded when a fox cub made an appearance at 9pm. I was surprised to see how much it had grown in just a week. I hoped that another would join it, but it walked across to the entrance of another hole and sat down in front of it and fell asleep for half an hour. Occasionally it lifted its head up and at one point it snapped at a crane fly – commonly known as a ‘daddy longlegs’ - that flew too close.

Then it got up, stretched and began hunting more crane flies, stalking them through the long grass.
It caught dozens and ate them all. Some rabbits playing nearby caught its eye and it started to stalk them. But the adult rabbits soon spotted it and began thumping their back legs as a warning. The noise unnerved the fox cub which scampered back into its hole for safety.

It soon remerged though having learnt its lesson and resumed its insect hunt further down the valley where I lost sight of it in the darkness. I tried to see this fox family on several further occasions but I didn’t get to see a fox again. They are known to move den sites when the cubs get bigger or weather permitting will choose to live above ground in cornfields or thickets. When I saw a rabbit sat outside the fox holes my suspicions were confirmed that the foxes had move on.

I switched to watching the badger cubs in the lower sett, but in spite of some success this time around I couldn’t help but feeling infuriated to have been outwitted by these cunning foxes once again.

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