I spent a very wet afternoon in Dalby Forest this month trying to make the most of a rare day off with my family. It reminded me of a similarly soggy July camping there two years ago when I spent a stormy afternoon tossing dog biscuits to a wild fox and admiring her as she caught them in the air like a pet dog.
I had gone there after a visitor to an exhibition at my gallery told me about fox that was so bold it regularly ran in front of cyclists like a ruthless Highwayman demanding food on one of the main bike trails from Dixon’s Hollow. I set off on the very next free Saturday I had, ready to camp there so that I could maximise my chances of seeing the fox. It turned out to be the wettest weekends of the summer, but an amazing wildlife experience nonetheless.
I took my mountain bike with me so that I would blend in with the other cyclists. I asked several people if they knew about this brazen fox. One said it had grabbed some sausages off a lit barbeque, another that it raided open cars for food and a third said it had even eaten jelly babies out of his hand. Each tale placed the fox in different locations so I simply cycled round the whole area all day.
By 4pm I was getting disheartened. But then as I biked into the car park nearest to the Dalby Activity Centre I noticed a group of cyclists covered in mud by their van. Five metres away from them sat a fox looking at them intently, begging for tit bits.
I headed towards them and as I got my camera out I explained I had been looking for this fox all day. They told me, matter-of-factly, that it was always here at 4pm just as they finished their bike ride.
It was a vixen and I could see by her swollen teats that she was lactating. I suspected her cubs were somewhere nearby.
I had brought along some dog biscuits and threw a few to the vixen. She ran forward to pick them up and I began taking a series of photographs in quick succession. One of the group casually tossed a half-eaten sausage roll to the fox as they headed off. At last I was alone with the fox. I kept throwing her biscuits and photographing her in different poses. She ate a few and then I noticed she was gathering the food up in her mouth, probably to take to her cubs. I was keen to find them. If they were as tame as she was then I might get some great shots.
Mouth full, she headed off through the undergrowth which was too dense for me to follow on my bike. I went the long way round, but she soon appeared on the track in front of me and crossed it heading along the edge of the cycle course. She ran along some of the obstacles, completing several jumps and balance beams. It was astonishing watching her weaving along the busy obstacle course before disappearing into the forest.
I didn’t fancy following her along this demanding route on my 20 year old bike, especially as I was carrying a tripod in one hand and a rucksack on my back full of heavy cameras. I decided that my best tactic was to head back to the car park. I thought she would probably come back there since she knew I was handing out food. Sure enough, she was back within five minutes.
Again she gathered the dog biscuits into her mouth and headed back to her cubs. I raced round the wood to where I knew she would cross the track again and this time followed her a little further before circling back to the car park to feed her the next instalment.
Each time she disappeared in the direction of the cubs, I followed her a little further and then cycled back to the car park to meet her on her return trip. By continuing in this way I got a little closer to the cubs each time. Eventually I found them a good 600 yards away from where we had first started. I could hear a whickering sound and then I spotted two cubs peering very warily through some ferns at me. Not a bit like their mother.
It was getting late, so I backed away and headed back to the campsite. As I left I noticed the grass near the track at the bottom of the valley was flattened and realised that this was where the cubs probably played. I was pleased that I had now pinpointed the den site.
It rained so hard that night I barely slept and bitterly regretted my decision to camp. The ground was soggy, everything was damp and there was a drizzly mist in the air. I headed back to where I first saw the fox and parked up. Next I set off on my bike towards the den with my camera.
Sure enough there was the vixen going down the track in front of me. She turned to face me. I tried coaxing her towards me with dog biscuits but she was a much more wily fox now that she was near the den site and she didn’t respond.
Instead she turned and went away down the hill. Then all of a sudden she was ambushed by her three cubs. They were wagging their tails furiously and rushing round her, licking her muzzle. I tried creeping forward to get some photos but she barked an alarm call and the cubs instantly vanished into the forest.
She trotted off in the opposite direction, heading up a steep cycle track towards Adderstone Field. She crossed the field and I caught up with her at a children’s playground where she was checking the bins and BBQ areas. I gave her a few biscuits and again she headed off with them back to her cubs. I didn’t go near the cubs again. She clearly didn’t want me there.
Instead I followed her on and off for most of the morning. It was fascinating watching this wild animal negotiate cars, bike riders, dog-walkers largely unnoticed, and taking advantage of any opportunities to get food. People began to set up their BBQs, I noticed she was no longer interested in dog biscuits, but was after beef burgers and sausages instead.
Towards the end of the afternoon light showers turned into a heavy downpour. In a very short time all the day-trippers had suddenly packed up and headed home. It I felt as if I was the only person left in the whole forest. The fox seemed to realise this too because she was now happy to take dog biscuits from me again. After a while she headed back into the woods and I lost her. I was absolutely soaked and decided it was time to call it a day so I headed back to my bike, which I had left near the playground. But when I got there I found the vixen dragging around my camera bag around, which had some dog biscuits in.
I gave her a few and she set off with them in her mouth again. I headed back to the car, and, just in case she was still about, lit the stove I had in the boot of the car and started to cook four sausages - two for me and two for the fox. While they were cooking, I started litter-picking.
I was amazed at how many discarded energy drinks bottles I found. After collecting four bags of rubbish my sausages were ready. And, not surprisingly, the fox was back, trying to work out how to get into my car.
I let her sausages cool whilst she sat and watched me eat mine. But then she got tired of waiting and began to forage about. She found a plastic bag with a sandwich inside in the bushes. I didn’t want her to take this plastic bag to her cubs so I ran a few steps towards her to scare her away from it.
She dropped the bag and I picked it up and placed it out of the way on the roof of my car. I turned to get her the sausages – I wanted to make up to her for scaring her - but before I had turned back she had jumped up onto my car and was climbing up the bumper and spare wheel to get at the plastic bag. I shooed her off and gave her the sausages instead.
A thunderstorm was brewing and the wind began to whip around me. I was already wet through so I sat down on my folding chair with the rain lashing down to photograph the vixen at eye-level. She sat patiently in front of me waiting for more biscuits, as though she were a pet dog.
It was quite surreal. As dark clouds gathered overhead, pierced by occasional bolts of lightning and thunder, the fox came right up to me and jumped up to my knees with its front paws. It looked me in the eyes and started sniffing at my pockets for biscuits. Then she started tugging at the flap of my pocket and nearly pulled me off my chair.
It was a bit too close for comfort – and for photography - so I threw more biscuits, tossing them a little away from me. As I spun them into the air one at a time, she sat before me catching them in her mouth with the rain came down on her. It was quite an incredible experience.
I returned to the same spot again on my visit last week, wondering if I might catch up with that bold vixen or her cubs, but she is no longer around. I wonder what happened to her? Below is her portrait, which I painted on my return.
· If you have any news of the Dixon’s Hollow fox, or of any interesting wildlife sightings, please let me know either by email email@example.com or on twitter @RobertEFuller.