Bethany Dawson

Author // Writer // Editor

In Search of Fox

December 31, 2020

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This piece was featured in Issue Eight of Freckle Magazine, an independently published magazine celebrating the people and landscapes of Northern Ireland and beyond.

When the moon is full and the children asleep, I wander the fields in search of fox. There is a family tunnelled beneath an Ash tree; we have hair fragments and Plaster of Paris paw prints as proof. The earth around their den is well trodden and, during the summer, their path along the field’s edge is clearly cut. On the evening the wolf moon rose like a giant snowball over icy fields, I perched on a farm gate near the river. My approach troubled a deceit of lapwings; their extra-terrestrial warning call travelled far. I sat still and practised the art of paying attention.

The first time we walked those fields was early morning at the beginning of summer. Our dogs were nose to the ground and frantic. I noticed movement at the bottom of the field. We stilled the dogs and hunkered down. There, in the shade of the hawthorn hedge were three fox cubs, tumbling and clawing at one another in the nettles. So began a weekly pilgrimage to their den. We discovered everything from the skull of a pheasant to the fleece of a lamb. Once, after an unfortunate miscount of poultry, we found the remains of Fizzy, our best laying Sussex, discarded at the den mouth. My daughter knelt to gather beak fragments and our discourse on life and death deepened.  

The newest of the barns on our farm are no more than forty years old. They are long, tin-roofed structures built to house hens. The machinery is dismantled and piled in a corner and we piece it together like a puzzle. There must have been hundreds of hens contained in those sheds. One hot afternoon we sat on the concrete floor with our eyes closed. We mimicked the sound they make when laying an egg: low, plaintive and laboured. Then we imagined it multiplied by hundreds and had to cover our ears. The birds were well protected from foxes, we concluded, but if we had to choose, we would want the wind in our feathers and freedom to worm-worry, even if it came at a cost.

After the eggs were sorted for the Armagh egg lorry, my farm wife predecessor kept some back for the neighbours. When a horn blew in the yard, she appeared with half-dozen boxes and tarried over local news. She can still hear it, over the tea trays and talking, the Zimmer wheels and coughing, that clear toot, like a call to prayer. And she is on her feet before she knows it with hands reaching for apron strings that are not there.

In late Summer, fox calls every evening. His tail is ink-dipped; his eyes perfectly round with pin prick pupils marking the end of a story. I wait for him: enemy of my egg layers, father of cubs, streak of a red, hot Machiavellian. He skulks in the fence shadows. His head is lowered, his feet purposeful and light. Once, before his hen house patrol, he turned to face me. Meadow grass shifted in the wind and we locked eyes. When a fox pauses like this, my heart longs for something for which I have no name. This is what inspires my nightly garden vigils and drives me into moonlit fields where frost makes a quiet advance impossible.

The screech of a fox is the call of the wild. It will disquiet the most content and echo in the shadows. Listen, it has something to say.

Soon, another generation of cubs will inhabit the den in the roots of the old Ash tree. They will remain underground until the Spring when, if we tread gently, we might catch them at play under the hawthorn hedge. Until then, when the moon is full and the children asleep, I will wander the fields in search of fox.

Photo Credit to Tom of @gnowangerup_cottage whose wildlife photography never ceases to inspire me.

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