On Foxes: On Fury. On Hatred.

It’s late, past midnight, and I’m walking home full of good food, good chatter. Champagne has loosened my limbs, and I smile up at a star-strewn sky. Stevie has long since gone to bed, and I take out the dogs, bank up the fire. I slip into bed, press my cold feet to Stevie’s shins, sleep.

I’m woken barely two hours later, by a sound that catapults me instantly out of bed. I’m out of our room, down the stairs before my eyes are even open, and I fly through the house, wrench open the conservatory doors, run out into the night. I’m barefoot and wearing daisy-print knickers.

The hen house is twelve feet from the back door, and I see immediately that the fox is still in there. I run back inside, snatch on my wellies, shout the dogs. My black anorak is on a chair, and I yank it on as I get outside.

The noise is fearful: Whitey with her shrill alarm, Sandy smashing hopelessly against the wire mesh of the fence; terrified. The fox is a black blur within, panicking now, knowing I’m there and I’ve got dogs and a rage so murderous I could rip it apart with my bare hands. I’ve got to open the gate, got to. Sandy is most definitely still alive, and I can’t risk the fox going for her: this I rationalise after. In the moment, the mad, blood-crazed moment, I just want to get that fox.

Kill it – my voice comes from my boots; raw, guttural.  Kill it. I smash open the gate, the dogs dive into the coop, the fox dives out. I strike it a glancing, pathetic blow with my welly, then Dora streaks between my feet, sets off in pursuit. Pants gets confused, and tries to grab a hen.

‘Leave it!’ I shout. ‘Bloody leave it-‘

He drops a bird, legs it after Dora. I leap out of the coop, senselessly clash the gate close, then I hold onto it because my legs are shaking so much. Whitey is a ghostly bundle of feathers in the corner; I can’t see Sandy anywhere. I press my face to the gate, and I’m sobbing, saying oh no, oh no. I’m sorry, so sorry; over and over. The guilt is like a hook around my guts.

I hadn’t shut their hatch.

Stevie comes out, with a stout stick and a torch. He pulls me into his arms, briefly. ‘Are they dead?’

They’re not; not yet, anyway. There are feathers everywhere. Sandy was badly injured last time the fox got in, on Christmas Eve. Then, it broke Josephine’s neck, flayed her back to the white of her spine. We had to kill her on Christmas morning. Sandy had had deep bite marks just above her saddle, but she survived.

We go to Whitey, huddled in a corner of the coop. The torch shows Sandy behind her, and both hens are covered in blood. I pick them up, put them in the laying box, one after the other. I can’t see if Sandy’s wounded, but she’s already in shock. Whitey has a very obvious injury; deep bites across her saddle, as Sandy had at Christmas. Neither bird puts up any resistance.

We barricade them in, wedging lengths of two-by-four across the nesting box, a brick and a pallet across the guillotine-door of the hatch. We work quietly, grimly, suddenly remembering our neighbours. The dogs are out running in the darkness; crazed by the night-scents.

Stevie runs the torch around the coop. We can’t see how it got in.  The doubled-up mesh is secure, the tough nylon mesh that starts around five foot is un-holed. But then I see. ‘Look.’ The roof of the coop is covered in the same heavy-duty nylon mesh. It’s eight-foot from the ground. A large hole has been gnawed, almost in the middle. For a moment, we’re both  silent. Stevie flicks the torch around the perimeter, but we’re right. It got in through the top net.

There’s no more that we can do now, not in the freezing dark, so we whistle the dogs. Stevie stands on the plinth by the French doors, and the light from the new kitchen illuminates him. For a moment I’m cheered: he’s wearing wellies, a wax jacket and has bare legs. He catches my eye. ‘In,’ he says.

I don’t go back to sleep. At first I prowl around the house, wrapped in a red dressing gown. I stare out of windows, my eyes burning with effort. I know it’s out there. I know it will come back. I fantasise about it climbing back in, through the torn net, landing lightly on the hen house, its claws barely clicking. Then it being trapped. There for me to find in the morning.

The sodium street light out the front of our house illuminates the chestnut tree, the chain-link fence bordering the cricket. That’s where he’s run to; I see fox poo often enough out there. Every filthy pile gives me bubbles of blackness: I hate that fox on a level within me that’s ancient, primeval.

I think about the fox’s right to hunt. He’s wild, conscienceless; he kills to eat. He’s innocent when tried in a court of morality.

I think all of these things, and rationally, agree. It was my fault for not doubly-protecting my birds. Birds that don’t even lay any more, and haven’t for over a year. No one could blame a fox for being a fox.

Except I know, that come morning, if that fox comes back, and becomes trapped in my coop, such thoughts won’t be in my head. I’ll have a garden fork in my hand; a spade, an axe, a damn butter knife if I have to.

And this time, it won’t get out of the gate. Not alive, anyway.

 

NB: Both hens are still alive. As for the fox: I can wait.

 

Tue 23rd April – On Walking

Dora and I meet up with the Curdie-Wurdie, one of my favourite people, but rubbish at nature-spotting with, unless it’s birds.

Curdie likes birds, and volunteers for the RSPB Garden Watch every year. ‘Have you seen the swallows, yet?’ she asks. ‘And the swifts?’

I tell her I knew they were here, but I hadn’t really noticed. I don’t say that I’m unsure of exactly what a swift looks like. A smaller, faster swallow?

We tramp up to the Old Allotments, and I tell Curdie all about my dreams of a communal orchards, and some allotments, and fencing for fat village ponies.

‘Why do you want an orchard?’ asks Curdie.

‘To collect fruit,’ I say.

We march about the field, pacing imaginary borders and assessing angles of incline. Emma’s pigs are in the field below, and they watch us from beneath their ears. Dora tears around, driven mad by the scent of fox.

It’s a glorious day, and the sun makes last year’s grass a brushed metallic khaki. If you bend over and look closely, you can just see the acid green of this year’s growth beginning to come through.

Curdie and I walk up the old bridle path – useless as such as it’s bombed with huge badger and fox holes. Someone’s evidently been down there, tidying up. The ash trees that fell over winter have been sawn up and moved, and the path is littered with broken twigs. There are clumps of bluebells everywhere (no spears yet), but no wild garlic. WHY? Has it never grown round Horley? Did local farmers take exception to it? Or have I lost my sense of smell to the point I can’t find it? Like my non-flowering aubretia, I’m beginning to become obsessed.

We walk down the Hornton Road towards Horley, and bump into E with lovely Jumble, Dora’s brother. The dogs instantly wind themselves into a lead tangle, and E and I awkwardly unthread them. Jumble briskly humps Dora’s head. Dora rolls her eyes.

‘Wrong end,’ says E.

We all agree the weather is beautiful, and how much cheerier life is with the sun. Then we all agree how fast our children are growing up, and how old we feel.

Eventually, Curdie and I wander on. I try to be discreet as I peer into a skip outside a cottage.

We see some lung-wort, purply-blue, still flowering its speckled socks off. Walking past Bramshill Manor, Curdie spots the fruit trees on their lawn.

‘An orchard!’ she says. ‘See?’

‘So?’ I say, gazing through the iron fence. ‘We can’t get to them.’

Curdie’s eyes gleam, she savours the word as she says it: ‘Scrumping.’

We laugh at the thought, and Curdie points out a tree. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘Look!’

Thinking she’s spotted a particularly lovely bird, I say ‘Where, where?’

‘There!’ She’s triumphant. ‘A mulberry tree.’

‘Mulberry tree?’

‘Mulberry tree.’

‘Oh?’ I say, peering at it. It’s not very tall and has gnarled bark that makes me think of walnut shells.

She nods sagely as we walk on down the hill. ‘Mulberry. Yup. Good for going round.’