We did not realise that we had foxes until the winter snow came. That winter (1996-97) was quite harsh by local standards. The ancient town where we lived is set on a ridge surrounded by small farms and wooded valleys. Our garden led straight into a small wood so we had not been surprised to find that fairly large animals visiting us and inspecting - and perfuming - our plants and rear doors. We had suspected badgers, thinking that as we had dogs, foxes would not be so bold. We were in for a shock.
The first of our visitors appeared under the bird table eating fallen seed and peanuts. A ragged vixen with a tail bald for half its length - this we now discover is the mark of an indulgent mother who allows her tail to be used as a toy - giving her a very sad appearance. Moved by this pathetic sight, my wife left a plate of dog food in the snow. Within minutes the plate and the fox vanished into the wood. The fox reappeared after a short interval, sat at a respectable distance looking at our house. She vanished when a second plate was placed out, then popped out again to feed the moment the door closed. This time she cleaned the plate in full view of the house. Albeit with a cautious eye on the door.
We repeated this performance the following day, plainly she was taking food to the wood before feeding herself. We ordered more dog food. Our feed is the dried compound sort, cereal based, designed to provide - soaked in water - perfectly balanced meals. Because of our concern about the number of plates, bowls and other containers disappearing into the woods and surrounding fields - some we recovered from the most unlikely and distant places over the coming year. We cut the sides out of plastic milk containers to make feeding bowls. These when placed out were carried into the wood by what appeared to us to be two separate females, the one with scrawny tail and one whose fur carried an unusual amount of black. Later we were to be surprised by the amount of colour and size variation in the fox population, to say nothing about the variety in markings. But I digress.
So how many mouths were we providing for? Initially there seemed to be two females, each with three cubs, this we found was an underestimate. By cubs I don't little furry chaps but merely young foxes still with their mothers. Though later we did find smaller animals were being fed with the others. A routine soon developed. Shortly after dusk a vixen would appear, sitting by the willow tree, halfway down our long narrow garden, she would stare around, not looking at the house, occasionally she would yawn in a bored fashion. She would vanish as the door was opened and reappear as soon as the garden was empty. Eat a portion of the food, vanish, reappear and run off with the container. A second container would be placed out and sometime during the evening, this too would go. But the departure time of this one was never certain, it simply went during the course of the evening. A strange rapport developed between us and the foxes. We always knew when one was there and wanted food. They guarded the rear approach to our house, alerting us to strangers using the path through the wood. This took two forms, the first a sense of SOMEONE COMING, an uncomfortable sensation. And secondly by strident yapping. One of our sons, taking a shortcut in the dark - the only occasion - swears they nipped his heels as he walked. And then they started to leave things for my wife...
A flight of iron steps led from our garden into the wood, although the area had no fence in was too rough to walk comfortably on so access was provided by steps. At the bottom of the steps a footpath went by and across this path, the wood and the countryside beyond. At first we thought it was imagination. A curiously shaped pebble might appear on the bottom step, a whitened bone or an interesting feather. Easy to dismiss but for the foxy smell on each item. A Jay's wing joined the collection, followed by a Rabbit's skull, twigs, chewed in various ways, branches of trees complete with leaves, flowers, various, and last but not least a Photo Buscard belonging to a lady from Guildford. All delicately perfumed with fox odour.
We thought as spring came that the need to feed them would diminish, so reduced the food. They obviously hunted but on wet days dropped in for a top up. On really bad days they sent a young male up the garden to catch our attention. Late one evening I felt the urge to look round the curtain and was shocked to see a fox sitting below the window (first floor) with what looked like a green bowl in its mouth - it later proved to be a frisbee - food was placed in this, food and frisbee, vanished. In late March we were awakened in the night by strange noises. The garden appeared to be filled with foxes of all shapes and sizes. They were making weird crackling noises, squeaks and whistles. Sitting in a rough circle in the full glow of our security lighting. While this odd gathering took place, young foxes balanced on the garden walls trying to see into the cellar windows for a glimpse of our dogs, which by the way were making no noise at all. We went quietly back to bed. For safety's sake we started to illuminate the garden from an upstairs window with a 500 watt Halogen spot light. This proved a major error, acting as beacon to foxes miles away, inducing a Pied Piper effect which meant that half the night was spent driving away strangers, while the local company shrieked their anger and frustration. I had expected that my presence in the garden would be deterrent enough. No chance, the strange foxes - mainly young males - even when caught in the beam of a powerful torch. Simply ducked and wove from side-to-side like naughty dogs but, of course, keeping a safe distance.
Concerned that we had created an unnatural dependency which affect the future survival of our guests. And aware that we must soon move. We started discreet local enquires to find if there was someone who take over the feeding during the oncoming winter. All of our side of the High Street opened into the same open countryside. We started with the local Wine Shop at first our inquiries meet a blank stare. We smelt a rat (or rather a fox). Well yes! They did know about the foxes, in fact, they fed them! There was one in particular that always carried an old frisbee as a food bowl. Similar questions were asked at the Restaurant - all food scraps but not chicken bones. The Butchers - anything the customer would not buy. The Greengrocer and Fruit Purveyor - all over-ripe fruit but they hated kiwi fruit. The Bakers - all cakes with a particular fondness for wholemeal bread. We have moved now, our old home is still in the family. Occasionally a shamefaced fox drops by for a snack. Lately the alley-ways near our new home have taken on a foxy smell, we've only moved five miles. No! It could not be so! Surely?