Donal Hickey: Survival of the foxiest

On a starry, frosty night last week, I heard piercing, almost eerie cries in the countryside. So haunting was a high-pitched sound that it must have been like what people, long ago, thought was the wail of the banshee, the invisible fairy woman who sounded a warning about an imminent death in a family, writes Donal Hickey.

But what we heard was the noise of foxes, which are now more vocal during their mating season. As males seek out vixens in heat, foxes are also more mobile now, which probably accounts for more road kills.

Unlike the bark of a dog, the cries of foxes are shorter and sharper and can carry long distances. We’re told the fox population is in a healthy state and they have settled well in cities. We’ve seen them in the heart of Dublin, Trinity College no less. And don’t be surprised to hear that fairy noise, these nights, from suburban back gardens!

The fox features globally in folklore, even in China. In Ireland, we grew up on its legends and pisheogs and how it was unlucky to meet a fox, or a foxy (red-haired) woman, first thing in the morning. Ancient druids admired it for its hunting skills and cunning, something common to traditions surrounding the fox.

But is the fox really that clever and smarter than other animals? Not certain. It probably built its reputation on its ability to adapt to different environments and to seek out food in sometimes unlikely places.

The fox has to rely on stealth to catch prey and feed itself. But could not the same be said for cats, or hyenas, or hawks? There’s a fox which I regularly observe at dusk. Wisely, it is wary of human beings, always looking around but also daring at times: it stares from a distance of a few hundred metres, weighs up a situation and then takes a calculated risk in search of food.

The fox is a doughty survivor. The bane of poultry-keepers’ lives, it has been difficult to defend the henhouse from it. We’re told you’d need a fence about two metres high to keep out a marauding fox.

Generally seen as a pest, it is often accused of killing young lambs. Wildlife-lovers, however, say it tends to feed more on the carcases of already dead sheep and lambs, and it preys on rabbits and rats.

Around 35 years ago, there were fears the fox could become extinct here due to widespread hunting for its pelt. It was believed that for several decades up to the 1980s, more than 30,000 pelts were being exported annually from this country to the international fashion trade.

Fox hunting is still legal here, but has been banned in Britain. Yet, we have a thriving fox population, again down the animal’s adaptability and extra cover provided by forestry, perhaps.

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