Shy forest creatures are now bold and urban

Our neighbors, Joan and Richard, have taken off for their house in Spain again. I know this because I bumped into Maureen the other morning. She was taking their black lab, Daisy, for a walk. She is in residence once more as dog- and house-sitter. She is also - more important, I suspect - the fox-sitter. The fox is called Freddy - short, presumably, for Frederika or the like, since Freddy is busy with maternal duties. Maureen's job is to make sure Freddy is properly fed.

"Yesterday," Maureen told me, "she was sitting there at tea time by the garage, staring at the house window." She was waiting for her daily rations and probably wondering why they were late. Throughout the evening, Freddy kept coming back for more. She (and her offspring, presumably) had finished the cooked chicken pieces. So wasn't there any steak pie tonight? Maureen came up with a slice of quiche and half a sausage. "And I hard-boiled an egg," she said, "because the last time I gave her a raw egg, she broke the shell and didn't know how to carry it away."

A few hours later, Freddy was back waiting patiently once again, sitting there like a domestic dog. Maureen was being visited by a friend. The friend said: "Oh, Maureen, look at that poor starved creature, you must give it something to eat." So Maureen found feta cheese in the fridge. "By the time Joan and Richard are due home, it would be beyond its sell-by date...." So Freddy had cheese for dessert. Maureen put out the usual dog biscuits, too, but Freddy turned her nose up at those. I wonder why?

According to one website there are about 195,000 foxes living in England these days. But we are in Scotland, and the same website says there are only about 23,000 foxes here. But I'm doubtful. If there are no more than 23,000 of these russet beauties in Scotland, how come most of them live in our neighborhood? There is a good Scottish word: "hoaching." It means "overcrowded" or "bursting at the seams." Well, our inner-suburb neck of the Glasgow woods is hoaching with foxes. Every year there are more. And every year they become less timid.

Foxes in the country could hardly be more shy. They are surreptitious and nocturnal. Our city foxes are sometimes careful, but mostly they own the place. Dogs may bark and pant at them, but do they care? No. They just stand and stare, bemused by the dog's antics. I've carried on extended conversations with them as they stand only a few feet away. (Admittedly, I do all the talking.) The tolerance of city people has reduced their fear. Walking our dogs at night, I try to warn foxes of our approach. I cough loudly. They ignore me. The dogs are on leashes, so what threat could they be? At the last minute, they may slope off through someone's gate as a concession to tradition.

Now we have our own fox cub. A few years ago, another neighbor had a family of foxes in her back garden. On wet days, they would take shelter in her dilapidated greenhouse, curled up like golden retriever puppies, waiting for meteorological improvement. Our upstairs neighbor, Betty, said just the other morning that she and her husband have been watching another fox family playing in the garden on the other side of us. These cubs may be Freddy's. But "our" cub seems to be an only son (or daughter). Its mother is quite small and a strong rust red. She sits in a patch of sunlight at the foot of the large conifer, nose a-twitch, while her youngster susses out its environment.

My wife saw it first. The cub made a useful discovery about glass. It assumed this transparent substance wasn't there and bumped into it. No harm done, but lesson learned. The person on the other side of the glass was of no concern to the pup. Since then, we have seen him come right up to the house on exploratory visits. He has driven the dogs to distraction, but they, too, are safely imprisoned behind glass, so why should he worry?

We city dwellers are utterly enchanted, of course, by this small plush parcel on four legs with a wispy tail and an intrepid attitude. Who wouldn't be? Even country people can sometimes find themselves softened. Particularly touching is a passage H.E. Bates wrote in "Through the Woods" (1938). One time, as he sat near a "biggish pool" by "a keeper's hut," he noticed "an unexpected stirring a flicker of brown, almost fawn, and then another and another." He thought they were rabbits. But as they "came tumbling up out of the holes ... playing an endless game of chivvy with each other," he realized they were 13 fox cubs. Fascinated, he eventually spoiled things by moving closer. Suddenly, "they were all arrested, electrically, in alarm." A moment later they vanished into the fox holes. And, Bates added, "I have never ... seen a fox cub since."

Well, he should have been in Glasgow in 2005.

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