It was a beautiful morning, and from the high ground it was possible to see for several miles in every direction, down over the shining grass where the blackgame poults are growing fatter and the sheep browsed idly over the wine red moss. On a day like today, there is a huge amount to be said for simply watching the world go by, and with a pair of decent binoculars, a vast stage of potential interest opens up at your feet.
I followed the progress of a red grouse hen for a few minutes before my eye was finally drawn to a fox over on the neighbour’s ground. The sheep bunched together when they saw him, and one of them stamped its foot at the trotting intruder. Six hundred yards away, I was too far off to hear them snorting, but I would have put money on the fox having to endure that petulant puff. He stood quite still and watched them for a moment, then put his nose back down into the grass and continued towards them. At last their courage failed them and they ran downhill as one, fighting to run on the same few inches of moss.
Backlit, there was little colour to the body of the fox, but the sun picked out a halo of orange and yellow to make his shape stand out from the glossy swirl of writhing grass blades. Armed only with my stick, I lay down in the rushes and kept a close eye on proceedings. As much as he seemed to be wandering aimlessly, this predator was balanced on a hair trigger of vigilance. The slightest sound would make him stop like a statue, cocking his radar ears and rotating them to get a better signal. If the sound came and vanished again, he would casually look up and around, ready to flick back into focus at the slightest rustle. Sometimes I felt as though this was a deliberate trick, like a quick-draw cowboy’s pistol – perhaps snapping back to the sound by reflex gave him a more accurate reading than holding the pose and making minute adjustments.
As soon as he had a fix, his entire body went stiff. Sunlight shimmered on the ridge of his spine and made the fringes of his tail glow golden. Once or twice he folded himself backwards slightly like a pressed coil, but more often the pounce would come from an innate pre-compression held wound in the posture. Springing clear of the moss, he popped up delicately so that when he came down, all his weight was in the front paws; elbows locked and punching from the shoulders. In perfect freeze-frame, he could have been suspended in a harness, fluid tail hanging immaculately behind.
At this range, it was too far to see what his success rate was. He paused fractionally longer after some pounces than others, but it was only when I had crept much closer that I was able to see how he was doing. With the wind precisely behind me and blowing towards him, I dropped down off the crags and wandered into the cool blue shadows where the dew soaked the drying autumn grass. The fox was still out of bounds on the neighbour’s land and I had no rifle on my back anyway, but as it had slowly worked its way down towards the march dyke, I couldn’t resist seeing how close I could get.
I came around above the wind and then tried to follow on behind his direction of travel, a circuitous passage heading West into the breeze. It was hard to keep my bearings, but half crouched and running up to the massive stone boulders of the dyke, I was soon within seventy yards of where the mouser was working. Little did I realise that he had also been heading towards me, and by sheer chance I happened to see him first as he jumped onto the stones and paused for a second just thirty yards away. He looked around behind him, then slipped beneath the rusting lines of barbed wire and dropped onto my side of the dyke. The movement had been silent, and now he was gone into the rushes at my feet.
Slowly, and with infinite care I pushed forwards on hands and knees until he was directly upwind, using the few seconds when he had his head down to close the gap even further, pressing myself into the dyke where the cool blue shade broke my outline and gave some context to my red t-shirt and blue jeans.
Breathlessly, I watched the ginger back emerge through the rushes and come straight towards me. He stopped, seemed to stare right into my face, then sat and itched his ear with a fretful, catlike flurry. My heart was roaring in my ears. He was seventeen paces away. I measured it later. He stood and stretched, then switched back to mousing. I watched his head turn and the ears come into focus. I had let my binoculars fall down by my side. There was nothing they could show me that I couldn’t already see through misted, sweaty spectacles. This was no idle town fox with a casual, devil-may-care attitude, but the kind of wild, heather-bred banshee that runs first and asks questions later. The proximity was electric.
A quick, snappy pounce and then I had the extraordinary experience of hearing him eating, crunching up a vole with a series of quick, passive munches. Ears went back, cheeks bunched and eyes closed briefly as he chewed. Within five minutes he had struck again, off to my right. I had a quick glimpse of a vole like a dark teabag hanging by its head from the white mouth before it too was munched up in two or three brief, bony slurps. There was no pleasure in the meal, just matter-of-fact ingestion.
There was a failed pounce, then a concerted effort for two or three minutes while a particularly difficult rodent was extirpated from its nest, requiring a little digging. This unfortunate creature was finally unearthed and despatched – internalised with the same quick-scissor action. Viewed from behind, I could see the whorls of pale hair either side of the tail’s base, and the white tail flag curled up and twitching like a leopard’s.
All this activity went on within a few yards, and when a merlin came hissing past overhead on set wings, I nearly leaped out from the cover of the dyke with surprise. I had been so set on the fox that everything else had faded away. Some linnets came over from behind, striving into the wind. It would have been possible to shadow this mouser all day, but having been brought back to the real world, I realised that I had things to do. It had already been three hours since I had first spotted him, and the time had flown by in a blur.
He was less than thirty yards away when I stood up, and as I rose, he sank into the rushes. He dropped so beautifully as a response to my standing that I almost wondered if he would stand again if I sat, as if we two were on a see-saw. I called the dog who had been patiently waiting further up the hill and she came barreling down with her tail flailing. At the first sight of the dog, the fox slithered out into the rushes like a snake on its belly, rising up when he was a hundred yards away and running like a fire in the wind.
When he pounced, he seldom missed, so his total tally could have been over a dozen voles in three hours of fairly laid-back foraging. In a good year for voles like 2014, the grass is literally wriggling with meat. For this fox, life is no doubt good, and made all the better by the fact that I had left my rifle at home.