The days are shorter and noticeably chillier. Elders are heavy with berries, squirrels dash about secreting winter food supplies in the lawn and ravens croak mournfully from the leafless branches overhanging our house. There are signs of an industrious mole in our small woodland – the earth pushed to the surface providing wonderful top soil for the garden – and we are wading about our land in a sea of fallen leaves.
I have spent the weekend clearing two patches of land: one to create a bee garden and the other to grow vegetables. Next week I begin work on the mammoth task of planting 250 hawthorn plants to create a wildlife friendly hedge around the meadow.
A few days ago, D’s mother came hurrying out of the communal animal house with news that there was some sort of fierce animal prowling in the goat’s enclosure, which, in her opinion, had probably “escaped from the zoo”!
I was hastily shoved into the building to investigate and the door shut firmly behind me. It quickly became apparent that the mysterious animal was, in fact, a small fox (of the Vulpes vulpes variety), which looked more like an antiquated fur stole with a particularly bad moth infestation than an exotic escapee.
The poor, terrified creature was by now crouched behind a bale of hay, its face a mass of open sores and its tail bald from the tip down. I touched it gently with a stick and it rounded on me, bearing its teeth for several seconds before slumping to the ground and curling up like a pet dog settling down for a snooze.
Only last month, a fox (or possibly several young foxes) raided our chicken run during the night and took about twenty birds. This was made all the more distressing because the new animal house (which keeps everyone under one roof during the night) was designed to be impenetrable. Sadly we hadn’t paid sufficient attention those childhood tales of the ‘wily old fox’.
Much as I’m filled with delight whenever I spot one of these fascinating animals with its thick red coat and bushy tail loping across the paddock, there is nothing more upsetting to a poultry keeper than the aftermath of a bad fox attack – especially if, like us, the hens and cockerels are all home-bred and given pet names like Peggy, Shelly, Worcester and Cornflake.
Nevertheless, foxes do whatever is necessary to survive, and this pitiable specimen was obviously sick or injured – otherwise it would never have permitted a human to come into such close proximity. We instantly suspected mange, a nasty skin condition caused by microscopic mites, which frequently leads to patchy fur loss and frenzied scratching. We also believed it had probably been sheltering in an unused outbuilding for several days as for at least the last week our dogs had been inexplicably barking and running around like loonies, sniffing the air with interest. And therein lay an additional concern: mange is highly infectious, especially to fellow canines.
The time was 4.30 in the afternoon, so we decided to contact the RSPCA for advice. D looked up the local branch and discovered it was open until 5 o’clock, so immediately began calling the number. An hour later, someone answered the phone, asked several questions, cautioned us not to approach the fox and promised to ring back when they had decided on the best course of action. At 6.30 we received the call and were informed that nobody was available in our area, so a vet would be sent over from Chester. The said vet – an exceptionally tall and immensely likeable young man – arrived at 10 o’clock. Armed with all the necessary paraphernalia he quietly approached the fox and attempted to gently slip a noose around its neck, however, it was straight away apparent that he was too late. The fox was dead.
The young vet picked up the distinctly smelly carcass with his bare hands, placed it in a box and took it away for cremation. Before leaving he advised us to treat our dogs with something called Advocate, an anti-parasite medication for sarcoptic mange. I felt surprisingly down that night, which was silly but a very human reaction to the death of a sick animal. I should by now be familiar with the insensitive, if unquestionably charming temperament of the natural world.
At 11 o’clock this morning, as I tugged at a particularly obdurate root, two loud rockets from the Remembrance Sunday ceremony reverberated through the clear blue sky. I stood quietly watching a small flock of Long-tailed tits, thinking about the two World Wars and the millions of people who lost their lives during those dark days. Who could possibly have guessed back then that our greatest enemy would now be environmental degradation? The latest assault on our flora and fauna is a seemingly unstoppable disease that is killing our native Ash tree – and we are warned that other deadly viruses will follow close behind. As a brassy melody and steady thumping struck up from the village, I couldn’t help but feel that the familiar red poppy with its black centre is perhaps a symbol more relevant now than at any time in our history.