Fox Reconnaissance

A brisk afternoon on the high ground
A brisk afternoon on the high ground

It was quite useful to run a quick look around the hill this afternoon to check on all the fox earths while they’re still lying inactive. Each year that goes by I find new holes which are either freshly dug or have recently been cleaned out and expanded, and as the badgers continue to colonise the lower ground on the farm, the foxes are forced to innovate uphill. I’ve found three new fox earths over the past winter, and one is right near the very highest point of the farm, facing North to the distant silhouette of Leadhills.

It took me some time to learn that foxes on the Chayne very, very seldom go underground, preferring to lie up in thick rushes or heather even during extended downpours. It was only when I was waiting out for a vixen that I discovered just how warm and comfortable this thick undergrowth is in poor weather, and I can well understand why they choose the rushes over some damp, musty old hole. As a result, the holes and earths are really only used for cubbing, and most of these epicentres are usually housed off-site in the neighbouring forestry.

There is still value in marking the earths on the open ground, and I have had some pleasing success with terriers now and again to make the exercise worthwhile. Perhaps the fox’s tendency to lie up contributes to the ease with which badgers take over the vacant earths, and those striped hogs also have a predilection for occupying and enlarging rabbit warrens on the Chayne. I have seen badgers share accommodation with rabbits, foxes and fox cubs in larger systems which must be linked, but the general trend is that when a badger moves in, everyone else moves out.

It’s a three mile round trip to cover the majority of earths and bolts on the Chayne, and I dashed around it in a fearsome south easterly wind this afternoon. A few red grouse rose up from the raging grass here and there, but otherwise it was surprisingly barren up on the craggy tops. Lying in the shelter for a moment, I watched a roe doe and her follower using the shelter of the march dyke to cross a wide open expanse of moorland, and even at four hundred yards my scent went whipping down and spooked them both back the way they came. A roost heaps showed where a blackcock had been lying up, but while the dog keenly worked the ground around in all directions, she came up with nothing to show. It is probably for the best, because if a blackcock had got up in that wind, it would have been in Tiree before it could have landed again.

There was quite a lot to be seen in the way of fox shit, but nothing outstandingly fresh. So much of the “scats” are made up of vole hair and sheep wool at this time of year that they can stay well preserved for several weeks without breaking up and melting away like a rich piece of protein-based summer shit. I pulled one of the most recent ones to bits with the tip of my knife and found it contained a tangle of yellowing vole bones and the nipped feather shafts of some small bird. Now is the prime time to be catching up with these foxes because while their diet seems innocuous, I have lost a few birds to the “red offenders” since October. That’s not to say that I haven’t been getting my own back, and my snares in particular were busy in January. I will build this up during February so that the curlews return to settle with some safety in the first week of March.

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