The fact that I’m not overly-keen on suburban foxes (or foxes in general for that matter) often comes as a bit of a surprise for many people that know me. I’d perhaps argue that they don’t know me that well if my mild dislike of foxes surprises them.
That said, I wouldn’t go as far to say that I’m pro fox hunting, (the justification of that seems these days to be based around the notion that hunting with hounds controls fox numbers which is demonstrably ludicrous), but I think there are far more pressing issues in the world (not just in conservation or animal welfare) than fox hunting.
Yup. I’m no fox fan – and haven’t been really since Anna and I started keeping hens about 7 years ago. We’ve not actually lost any birds to foxes at either of our houses in that time, but I’m not sure how really – in both our houses over the last 7 years, we have had foxes breeding the other side of our boundary fence and also foxes encouraged by neighbours’ feeding them.
Foxes DO (of course) take poultry (I would if I was a fox, for sure) but also do worse than that. Aware that the pro-badger-cullers are now citing badgers as the (main?) reason for the huge decline in our British hedgehog population (nonsense again), I’ll tread carefully here, but two of the breeding hedgehogs in our garden(s) at our current house have been eaten by foxes – I have found the evidence, unfortunately.
With the advent of tall, plastic “sulo” bins, the suburban fox doesn’t tend to tip over dustbins these days (or spread the bins’ contents all over the pavement or garden) but there’s still the fact that they’re not at all fussy about where they defaecate – or indeed dig for food or dig their earths.
I suppose the best things I can say about suburban foxes is that they may take the odd rat or two and also give (some?) kids a bit of a thrill if they see them skulking around the neighbourhood. A bit like a bigger, harder-to-see squirrel I suppose. Incidentally I am certainly no fan of grey squirrels either.
On the night of January 2nd (or more likely the early hours of January 3rd) our local foxes (we’re surrounded by them it seems) committed an act of atrocity* (their first mind – and we’ve been here almost five years) in our front garden I’m afraid.
An “act of atrocity”?! C’mon... whatever they did it can’t be that bad can it?
Yes. I’m afraid so.
Regular readers of this blog might know that we are fortunate enough here to have not one but TWO stag beetle colonies in our back and front garden. I’m talking proper stag beetles here, not lesser stags or chafers of any description – although we have good number of those too (including the wonderful rose chafers that feed on our photinia flowers each year).
The back garden colony of stag beetles is the biggest and exists in a rotting eucalyptus root system that once belonged to a large tree, planted in haste in suburbia. I love eucalyptus trees – I think they’re fantastic things, but they’re not really a tree for a back garden, even if the garden is as big as ours.
When we moved into the house, four and a half years ago, the previous owner of the house who had originally planted the tree, had already cut it down, but we were informed of the stump’s origins and each summer it produces (and draws in) good numbers of these wonderfully-impressive beetles. I’ve since covered the stump and root system with a whole pile of logs to protect the soft larvae beneath from the attention of our hens.
The logs that now protect the back garden stag beetle colony all came from the hornbeam tree in the front garden, which had died before we moved in. I cut down that dead tree (thinking that it could fall onto the house at any time) about three and a half years ago – and wondered if any stag beetles would make their home in this new stump and root system too.
In fact they already had – and the dead hornbeam’s roots were already home to stag beetles in our front garden like the eucalyptus roots in the back garden. I regarded the covering up of this particular stump to be unnecessary however, as our hens are confined to our extensive back garden with no access to the front of the property. I hadn’t considered the neighbourhood foxes though – that was a mistake.
In the three or so years since removing the hornbeam, but leaving the stump (ohhhh maybe four inches or so above the ground), we’ve had no significant fox activity centred around the stump itself – a few snuffle marks, a light dig – nothing troublesome. The stump had begun to rot and was very soft throughout those three years – and covered in turkey-tail fungi at various times. But that was all.
Until two nights ago.
I woke early (as usual) and on the last morning of my ‘Christmas and New Year holiday’ before trudging back to work today, decided to go for one of my regular pre-dawn owl-drives around the local farmland. Again, regular readers of this blog might know that we are blessed with having good numbers of little, tawny AND barn owls locally and I’ve been concerned about the barn owls in particular during this wet month.
I managed to see the local male barn owl on my pre-dawn owl-drive yesterday morning and returned home with a smile on my face. That smile quickly dropped off my face when, in the growing light as I locked the car and walked to the front door, I caught sight of a right mess in the middle of the front lawn.
The hornbeam stump had gone.
And in its place, were a large hole and a heap of dark spoil – peppered with juicy stag beetle larva of varying sizes and developmental stages.
I was horrified – and yes, this was *“atrocious”.
I had clearly walked right past this hole and spoil heap in the pitch black at the start of my owl-drive, but you couldn’t miss it in the daylight.
It took me a few minutes to work out what had happened, under the cover of darkness. One (or more – but it looked like one from the few prints visible) of our neighbourhood foxes had dug into the soft stump and kept digging. On the hunt for larvae perhaps? Who knows?
There were seven larvae clearly visible on the surface of the spoil – all dead. One could assume perhaps there were more that were eaten by the fox – although I have no proof of that.
If you know a little about stag beetles, you’ll know that not only are they endangered (old buried rotten woodpiles are few and far between in managed Britain) but they also spend between three and seven years as soft-bodied subterranean larvae – and only spend one summer above ground as ‘fully fledged’ adults, before dying. The damage that this fox had done was considerable – and even potentially spelled the end of this front garden colony – that would be very sad indeed.
I immediately tried to rectify the situation as best as I could – by filling in the hole with the loose spoil (wonderful soil quality) and replacing as many live larvae underground as I could – I think I saved (with luck) as many as ten larvae that had been unearthed by not killed.
Then, a few sheets of chicken fencing, pinned tightly flat to the ground with tent pegs and garden staples protected the attractive (to foxes!) loose soil which I’d heaped back into the hole. A few gentle presses with the sole of my size 14 wellies – and I was done. That’s pretty well all I could do.
I’ll probably leave the chicken fence pinned to the top of the colony permanently to be honest. The neighbours (with their Telly Tubby) manicured gardens might not approve, but I care not a jot. They like the vast majority of the British public are happy to see wildlife, but don’t really consider where it comes from or whether it CAN exist in their neighbourhood. In any case, the grass on the front lawn will cover most of the chicken wire by May next year, rendering the mess pretty-well invisible to all but the most precious of neighbours.
Last night I did set up a trail camera in the front garden, overlooking the (ravaged but now-protected?) hornbeam stag beetle colony, to see if the stapled fencing would indeed dissuade the fox(es) from more digging. Unfortunately, for the first time in weeks, we had a cool, still night after a day of rain, so the trail camera lens steamed up within minutes of setting up - but I did get a very foggy few clips of a fox (or two?) investigating the site of their previous night’s fun. But no further digging it seems.
There you have it, grapple fans. A real body blow to our stag beetles. At least in the front garden. I’ll keep watch on this colony in particular this winter and especially next summer in the hope that I have managed to save a few of these magnificent beetles. We may look at somehow protecting the colony further if that is the case – I’m not sure how at present (a loose log pile in the front garden may look a little strange), but that’s something for Anna and I to discuss this year.
At least we still have a very healthy colony in the back garden – a fox proof colony to boot!
As for the neighbourhood foxes – well with neighbours that insist on feeding them (WHY do people do that?!) they’re bound to be a permanent fixture around the ‘hood too - but as far as I’m concerned, my feelings towards foxes (a little worse than “Meh” I fear) are a little more understandable to some and might come as less of a surprise? Perhaps.
Footnote – The title of this blog “Get your thieving snout out” is a nod to one of my two twin sisters, who at the tender age of about seven years old, angrily told our maternal Grandfather just that, when he was offered a quality street from the “Christmas tin” of chocolates and started rooting about in it for his favourite. I’d like to report that she’s changed since then. I’d like to!