Friday 28 October 2016

The bloody life of a fox in the calving field

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

NATURE is red in tooth and claw. It can be grim and bloody.

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A farmer I know in West Cork has in recent weeks "pulled" (overseen-the-birth-of) about 40 calves - all successes, he reports, and more night shifts on the way. Such is the life of a dairy farmer.

Another friend in Mayo has also been experiencing some anti-social hours with lambing ewes - not usually in home paddocks after breakfast. Hundreds of others who live on the land in this country are likewise engaged at this time.

In this scenario, the other, natural side of Mister Fox's persona is highly visible. The urban animal, known to city and town folk as a prowler of gardens and parks and possible pet to kindly folk (I knew two girls who fed chocolate to one on the Hill of Howth) would appear to be a different creature than the animal of the countryside.

But Reynard is a wild one, and in its rural habitat it constantly hunts for food and follows the sounds and scents of spring animal birthing in the fields and around farmyard calving sheds. It poses a problem and so is shot at as a dangerous, stealthy predator, and for hundreds of years for 'sport' has been chased through the countryside by persons on horseback with packs of yelping dogs.

That's another story that has many unpleasant sides.

Recent letters from readers considered the fox's interesting relationship with humans, usually in an urban setting. The wily creature has learned how to behave, not to bite the hand that feeds it or, indeed, that might nurse it back to health.

It seems to have no know-ledge of being hunted, set upon by dogs, chased over fields or randomly shot at. A countryman will shrug at stories of harmless, sleek creatures that spend their time wandering about suburban gardens, keeping down vermin.

Here is one rural tale: A farmer (Cork setting again) came upon one of his calving heifers, agitated in a field after dark, to find three foxes chewing happily on the leg of a new-born calf. Was the infant too weak to rise properly after birth, or was it set upon by the foxes eager for placenta and warm blood? This man was not carrying a shotgun. He had lost a calf. Nothing he could do.

A reader recently enquired about WH Hudson, the naturalist who recorded stories of fox behaviour. I could not find the source of one about a woman who called for her pet by name as my library has been dismantled so builders may line walls to keep me from expiring from the cold.

I think of an old fellow I knew of once who lived in one room in a ramshackle mansion, wrapped in his greatcoat, keeping a timber blaze in the hearth by gradually pushing a tree trunk into the embers and depending on a kind neighbour to bring him a regular pot of steaming stew. The neighbour relieved his concerns about his ewes a-yeaning and the foxes prowling. I hasten to add that this is not me.

On a happier note: this is St Valentine's Day, and here are some tips for floral gestures. Carnations are easy. White is always remembering, red carries a torch while striped wishes togetherness. Forget the yellows - dis- appointment. With roses, pink seeks understanding and all know the message of the exquisite red.

Lilies are more positive. Arums signify burning love and with lily-of-the-valley all is sweetness and light. Have a nice day, and spare a thought for the farmer out half the night tending animals in unpleasant weather.

Sunday Independent

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