I’ve always got an ear to the ground for interesting wildlife sightings. So when I had a call from a customer saying he had seen a jet-black fox near his flat, my ears pricked up.
There are only thought to be a handful of such creatures in the country. Although black in colour, they are technically known as ‘silver foxes’ since the fur is tipped with white. The coloration is all down to genetics. Historically, silver foxes were among the most valued for their fur. Their silver-black skins were worn by nobles in Russia, Western Europe, and China and their pelts were considered to be of a higher quality even than that of a pine marten, beaver or otter.
But whilst they are virtually unheard of in Britain, I’ve read that silver foxes make up to 8% of Canada’s red fox population.
I gasped audibly down the phone as my customer told me he had seen the male black-coloured fox early in the morning on the opposite side of a steep valley from his flat.
He was so enthusiastic about his sighting it was hard not to get caught up by his stories of ‘Black Fox’, as he named it.
Soon after our telephone conversation, this customer came across to my gallery in Thixendale to show me his video footage.
He was quite a character. He arrived wearing a smart green tweed suit, tie and top hat. Jayne, who works in my gallery, welcomed him in by saying. “You’re looking really smart are you going somewhere nice?” To which he replied: “Yes: Here!”
His real name was Robert Burns, but he introduced himself as ‘Black Fox Bob’, which made me chuckle. I couldn’t wait to see his footage so we went through to the house and plugged his camera in to my widescreen TV.
As the video played, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I was expecting the fox to be dark, but this fox was as black as a
Labrador, with just the hint of silver highlights
along its body. It had a beautiful white tip to its tail, just like a red fox.
I watched entranced as Robert flicked through the footage. It was amazing how relaxed the silver fox seemed given that there was a busy dual carriageway just 20 yards further up the steep bank. This behaviour was very different to that of country foxes that I see here in Thixendale which are very wary.
The footage was a little shaky but nevertheless ‘Black Fox Bob’ had caught some fantastic sequences of two foxes, a black one and a common red one.
One of my favourite of his clips was of Black Fox flirting with a young red vixen. The vixen was sitting beneath him on the steep bank. He slid on his belly down the incline to join her, pulling himself along with his front legs and trailing his back legs and tail behind him. As he slipped alongside her, he stopped and stood up, then walked round her to regain the high ground.
He tried to be tender, sniffing around her face, but she rebuffed him with such a sharp snap that he slid down the bank. He got up to try again. This time, he wasn’t so charming and grabbed at her tail with his teeth as he slid past. But then a few minutes later he sidled over to her and licked her round the muzzle. She sat upright and they both looked down the valley together. Then she curled up into a ball and put her head down to rest and started cleaning and grooming herself.
‘Black Fox’ rushed towards her, excited by his success. Next, he jumped over her and bounded away into some trees. Then he ran back and pounced on her. He misjudged and his front legs landed heavily on to her body. She looked less than impressed by these boyish antics and skulked off to sleep in some undergrowth.
I asked Black Fox Bob to keep me up to date with his sightings. I was impressed with his diligence. I started to receive a stream of highly-detailed letters and late night phone calls with all the latest news. He was becoming as ‘fox-obsessed’ as I can be when I’m watching a wildlife subject. Black Fox Bob was so hooked he had even designed his own black fox logo.
I decided I had to see this unusual fox for myself.
The problem was that it usually made an appearance between 4am and 6am. At the time, my summer exhibition was in full swing and I was tied up with filming a weasel family in my garden for BBC’s The One Show.
By the end of June, Black Fox Bob informed me that a larger male fox had come on the scene. Bob called this one ‘Daddy Fox’ and it sounded as though this large male seemed intent on taking over Black Fox’s patch. Judging from appearances, Black Fox was last year’s cub, so his chances weren’t great.
To make the situation worse, the young vixen I had seen footage of Black Fox flirting with had disappeared and an old vixen had come onto the scene. Poor Black Fox appeared to be confused and lost without his mate and sightings had become unreliable.
Then Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox had got mange on his tail. He was worried it would spread.
Things took a turn for the better in August, when Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox’s mange had recovered and he now had another vixen mate. Black Fox Bob called this new lady ‘New Red’.
His video footage was still a bit on the shaky side as well as small on the screen and he was keen for my advice on how to get better shots. It turned out that he had been filming the fox from over 200 yards, so I suggested that he either needed to get closer to the foxes or get the foxes closer to him by using food as bait.
Black Fox Bob began a regime of slowly leaving a trail of food that led closer and closer to his flat window. The ploy worked a treat and soon he was getting some much better video footage. He sent me some clips of the two foxes. It looked to me like they had paired up and may well go onto mate in the winter. I wonder if we will get some black cubs next spring.
On one clip, New Red was filmed eating and looking up from time to time, as if she was waiting for something. Then Black Fox appeared out of the undergrowth and she rushed over to meet him. They touched noses by way of a greeting and he gave her an endearing lick on her ear before they began playfully chasing each other across the grass.
Then at the beginning of September, I got further news and another video. This time it featured New Red being attacked by a local feral cat. Black Fox was less intimidated by the cat and protected his girl by sitting directly in between the two; staring fixedly at the cat so that New Red could feed in peace.
This and all the clips and news I had had since I first heard of Black Fox made me feel I knew him well and now the urge to see Black Fox for myself could no longer be ignored. So this month I headed off to Black Fox Bob’s town flat in West Yorkshire.
He was amazed when I arrived and opened the boot of my car. Inside I had packed boxes and bags full of lights, flashes, infrared cameras, dimmer switches, wires, tripods, clamps, SLR cameras and lenses.
We loaded all this gear into his flat and Bob took me on a tour of the fox’s territory. Bob’s flat overlooks a steep valley which I jokingly referred to as ‘
He showed me where the foxes run through the undergrowth and where they slept
But we were conscious of the time and soon returned to his flat to set my equipment up. As dusk started to fall we were ready. I had linked an infrared camera to the TV in his living room so we wouldn’t miss a single movement outside.
The hours passed as we chatted about Black Fox, but by 11.00pm we had seen nothing – just the feral cat that had unsettled New Red. We decided to name this character ‘Scarface Claw’, after the children’s classic Slinky Malinki.
Then five minutes later, Bob said in a relieved voice: ‘He’s here’. We tiptoed into Bob’s bedroom to get a better view out of the window. I’d rigged his garden with security lights earlier that day and I gradually turned them on with a dimmer switch.
The black fox didn’t seem overly upset by this new development, although was less sure of the flash when I took a photograph. Thankfully after a few shots he relaxed and settled down to eat the food that Black Fox Bob had put out for him. I got a final shot before he trotted off on his rounds of his territory, melting into the darkness of the city.
· If you know of very unusual wildlife living near you I would like to hear about it. I can be contacted at my gallery on 01759 368355 or by email email@example.com.