After spending so much time in rural and semi-rural areas during of my life, I thought being locked down in Kew would limit my wildlife-watching opportunities. However, I have been pleasantly surprised. The birds have been as plentiful in species as my home in Cheshire; more plentiful in fact, as the habitats are actually more varied with gardens, parkland, lakes and the River Thames providing a variety that I don’t have at home. As I wrote a few blog posts ago, my mammal-watching at home had been pretty poor up until finding badgers coming into my back garden in the autumn. I can’t say that the mammals of Kew have been particularly spectacular but there is one species that has given us almost constant sightings and entertainment throughout the different stages of lockdown – foxes!
I find something particularly exciting about a wild species of dog living amongst us. Our country is so denuded of its nature, particularly its large wild mammals, that knowing that there is one particularly charismatic species wandering around right outside in our streets and gardens brings quite a thrill. I have a bit of a thing for wolves and have travelled abroad to see them, and foxes bring a little bit of that wildness of wolves to our towns and cities, as well as our countryside. They don’t have the majesty of wolves or the power to bring out the most visceral of feelings that their larger cousins do, but they’re now, unfortunately the closest thing to wild wolves we have, and they’re living right here amongst us.
We have seen foxes in both daylight and night time, heard them calling through the darkness and we smell their musky scent often as we walk around the streets for our daily exercise. They are usually oblivious to our presence as we look down from the windows of the second floor flat – even when we’re standing outside on the balcony. One night I whistled out of the window at one as he trotted up the road. He stopped, looked back for a while, and then happily trotted off again on his nightly business. However, not all our sightings are from such distance. I was out running a few days ago and saw a tail disappear into a driveway. As I approached, I came across him standing on the brick paving only a metre of so away, waiting for me to pass, before carrying on way.
I particularly like animals that are active at night, they have dimensions that we don’t, they live at times we prefer to be settled down inside the comfort of our homes, they have that added bit of mystery and are hidden from our view so much of the time. The calls of nocturnal species have always given me a thrill to hear as I lie in bed and the cries of foxes are no different. Sometimes in Kew it’s been just a single far off bark but other times they’ve been right beneath the window, shrieking. There was one late autumn night when an almost painfully high-pitched yelping could be heard in far off streets but it came closer and louder until the fox ran past the flat and onto other streets continuing its noise as it went – took me a while to get back to sleep after jumping up to look out of the window at some silly time in the early morning.
It isn’t just night-time sightings we’ve had. In the early days of the first lockdown I got a surprise when I saw one running up the road in the early afternoon but we have regularly seen them during the daytime and there was one that frequently sat on the grass outside of the flats taking in the early evening summer sun.
Across the road from us, Kew Gardens has been particularly good for foxes over course of the last year. At the height of the first Lockdown we would often walk past and look in through the gates; wishing we could go in. On one evening amble we saw a fox wandering close to the Elizabeth Gate; it turned to look back at us and then, gambling behind it, was a youngster, and off they went, deeper into Gardens amongst the darkening and silence lawns, trees and flowerbeds. They must have enjoyed the lack of people when the gates were closed for so long but perhaps they missed some of the leftover food too.
As soon as we were allowed back in, we went at least a couple of times a week. On one of the first trips, we were there just before closing time and came across a fox in the naturally wooded area. It stood and stared back at us and then disappeared into the undergrowth, waiting for us, and everyone else, to leave him to roam in peace when then gates closed for the day. We also saw another young fox playing in the grass just outside a small group of trees but again, we were soon spotted, and it loped off back into the cover, away from human eyes. In recent visits, as we’ve been walking close to the Thames end of the lake, we’ve seen a fox amongst the visitors in broad daylight, with seemingly little concern about the people around it and often not being spotted it trots past.
There was one particularly memorable sighting, however, just a few weeks ago. We were wandering in the Gardens close to the outside wall when a fox suddenly appeared alongside us busily running around the base of some some bushes. We heard a crow calling and it swooped down to mob the nervous looking animal and it was soon joined by a second. Over a period of a minute or so, they played cat and mouse with each other. The crows calling angrily and flying fast down to the ground, sometimes landing, while the fox either ignored them or prepared to duck and dive its way to avoid being attacked. As a crow landed on the grass, the fox stopped and then ran towards it but only for the crow to be easily launch itself back out of reach.
We have even started to recognise some of the individuals with a small and pale female seen regularly early in the first Lockdown and more recently fox with a brightly white-tipped tail who likes to walk along garden walls and an impressively large male we’ve named FBF.
It’s common for one of us to call ‘FOX’ across the flat in the evening as we look out of the window and looking out for them is last thing we do before we go to bed; one final bit of wildlife watching before closing the curtains on the day. They have become part of Lockdown life in a way that no other wildlife has, bringing a bit of natural thrill each time we see one.
With only a couple of weeks now until we leave Kew behind and move to rural Northamptonshire, I hope we get as good and as frequent views of foxes at our new home – they have really brightened up our days and nights and brought much needed bursts of nature into our lives over the past few months.