The foxes have been active; I think there are at least three individuals using the territory that includes my street, although I only get glimpses. Last night they were barking and the vixen called, right on the corner of the road outside. They appeared to head towards the derelict caravan site. I bet that is where they will den; there must be plenty of opportunities for digging an earth under the concrete foundations or deep in the undergrowth (a combination of bramble, feral buddleia, willow scrub and other self-seeded trees), and rats to catch for food.
I encountered another fox today. I popped out in my lunch break, around 1.30pm, for a short walk. It had been raining all week but today the sun tried its hardest to burn through the clinging fog. Sunbeams angled through the trees, shifting to solid shards and shadows as I walked, damp leaves deadening my footsteps. He locked my gaze with bright, clear, yellow eyes for a few moments. When he turned and slipped behind a dark holly bush and out of sight, it was without any sense of hurry. These were his woods.
January is the month of the fox. On softer days, when drizzle beads the vegetation with tiny scrying mirrors, you may observe a fox nosing around the field edge, seeking worms and beetles under the clods of earth at the perimeter of the plough lines. Gleaning the last bruised wild apples that shine in the tangled hedgerows like yellow baubles someone forgot to remove after Christmas, may bring a hungry fox to the road edge where you might glimpse them skulking in the ditch as headlight beams squint through the grey gloom.
It is the cold, frosty, moonlit nights however when your local foxes will be most noticeable. When the ice doubled the effect of the moon, lighten up the fields with a pale glow, and the ground freezes hard, the thoughts of foxes turn away from hunting and foraging, to other primeval needs. The cold clear nights of January seem to ignite an adrenaline that rises in vulpine veins; this is the time that they mate. The vixens run the show. It is they that call the dog foxes and they who chose their partner. Cold air carries sound well, especially when the world is night-quiet. The vixens call is an unearthly sound, often likened to a human scream and undoubtedly the source of many a ghost story and hair-raising tale of hauntings. The dog fox responds with a sharp bark, and he cannot resist the vixen’s siren call. When they meet however, he may well be disappointed. No easy conquest is this; instead she will play hard to get, leading him on and testing his prowess, stamina and strength. This is not simply the vixen teasing and playing, it is vital that she chooses the fittest father for her offspring, as she will rely on him to support both her and the cubs later in the spring. The litter is usually born around March, and the vixen will remain below ground with her four or five cubs for at least two weeks, totally reliant on the dog fox to provide food nightly. For now however, the normally territorial individuals will respond to the shortening nights, the cold temperatures and the full moon, and find themselves drawn irresistible together. Tensions will be high and tempers flare, but eventually the vixen will accept the dog’s advances. And it may be that this will be the only chance for both of them, as the life expectancy of the fox is short; rarely beyond 3 years in rural areas and just twelve to fifteen months in urban areas.
At night, we shut up out houses and cocoon ourselves in a world of sofas, television, a glass of wine perhaps, and block out the darkness beyond the window as though it is to be feared and avoided. But sometimes, just as we turn to bed, or call a pet in from a last check of the garden, we may glimpse a movement in the shadow of a parked car, or an eerie scream will stir the hairs on the back of our neck. These moments when the wild world of the night collides with our own constructed existence are vital connections that reassure our ancient souls. They remind us that even though winter may seem to be endless, nature is already preparing for spring.