Since moving to Cumbria I’ve been surprised by the reduction in my fox sightings, in the past three years living in Penrith I cannot recall seeing a single fox in and around the town and country areas, but take a short drive around Bristol in the early hours of the morning and I can guarantee it won’t be long until you spot your first glimpse of a bushy tail darting between two stationary cars. These controversial critters have appeared on many programs and media formats such as BBC’s Autumnwatch and Channel 4’s Foxes Live: Wild In The City, as well as other successful media outlets like BBC Wildlife Magazine and Radio Bristol. As city foxes grow ever more accustomed to a human presence even the sight of a fox fleeing is a rare one, on many occasions I have witnessed a bold fox casually wander down a main high street, seeming oblivious to the going ons around him as he searches for vulnerable rubbish bags and prime surfaces to spray with urine. During my five-week stay in Bristol over the holidays I had planned to try and get as close as I could to these foxes but once again the soggy South West’s forecast was a major hindrance in my schemes. After many weeks of waiting indoors there was a significant gap in the rain clouds and I jumped at the opportunity to get out and do a spot of nocturnal filming.
To assist me in the task of locating these abundant canines I enlisted the expertise of my experienced friend Giles Sharley, over the past six years Giles has established a successful business in pest control, gaining invaluable knowledge on urban species like the fox and the regions they frequent. I personally do not feel that foxes are much of a nuisance in the city but to some people their loud and distressing mating calls, strong scent marking and destruction of lawns and rubbish bags can be problematic. Foxes in the UK are safeguarded under certain extermination laws that protect them against a number of methods such as poisoning, maiming and snaring but due to their sheer numbers in the city Giles still comes across foxes in other fields of his work such as removal of carcasses and problems with burrowing and dens in basements and house foundations.
In the late hours of Saturday evening we set out to search the Cotham and Kingsdown areas, situated just over one mile from the city centre and well known by many locals for its abundant fox populations. Characterised by its large Victorian buildings, the leafy suburb of Cotham sits on its own hilly vantage point over looking the bright lights of central Bristol. The majority of these sizeable homes have extensive, overgrown gardens, intersected with various discreet alleyways, leaving plenty of hiding places for the opportunist fox. With numerous pubs and bars situated close by on the Cheltenham Road we quickly discovered that a Saturday night might not be the most perfect time for an operation when stealth and silence are paramount and as we wandered the dark, foxless neighbourhoods we frequently encountered loud groups of individuals heading towards their favoured drinking holes. We couldn’t quite figure out the exact reason why, but it seems that two men, skulking the dark streets, shining torches in front gardens and suddenly appearing from dark, disused alleyways may be considered highly suspicious by local property owners. Luckily, as suspect as we may have appeared, the worst attention we received was no more than the neighbourhood watch classic ‘behind the curtain’ peek and the occasional stop and stare.
Ignoring these distractions we pushed on with our search and headed to an old den that Giles had come across through his work and past lodging in the Cotham area. The fox den was located on the private land of an owner who had apparently failed to gain planning permission to develop due to issues with neighbouring houses having their views blocked by the ever encroaching sight of modernised flats. Over time the neglected grounds had become characterised by large mounds of earth and overgrown shrubs scattered with the remnants of old walls and foundations in a stretch of land that would have comfortably have fit four houses if the owner had not encountered the council’s obstruction. So for the foxes this private site had become the perfect location to set up relatively undisturbed by the surrounding human population. Unfortunately when we arrived at the supposedly undeveloped site we were welcomed with clear signs of significant development. The relatively wild, unkempt vegetation had mostly been removed leaving a sizable area of dirt and rock not that unlike typical scenes of a suburban bombing aftermath.
With no signs of activity but the occasional bothered cat we wandered back out of Cotham, as we headed back towards the car I started to doubt our chances of an encounter on a busy Saturday night and as midnight approached the streets didn’t seem to show any signs of relieving some of its human traffic. We decided to push on with one last stop nearby in the High Kingsdown area. The small high street is backed by a number of flats and bungalows in a disorientating crisscross maze of high walls, underpasses and small open areas of green. The area was a stark contrast from the large Victorian houses of Cotham but what Kingsdown lacked in large gardens and buildings it made up for in dark, deserted alleyways and a healthy selection of bin bags for the morning’s rubbish collection, a fox’s dream. Within minutes of creeping through the Kingsdown maze we were treated with the hideous scream of a two foxes in dialog. December to February is the fox’s mating season so copulating negotiations were just starting to get underway and there’s no confusing the unmistakable fox call, alarmingly similar to the sound of someone being brutally strangled in some nearby backstreet. Instantly alerted by the sound the two of us started frantically searching the network of paths for the culprits and sure enough as we turned the next corner we caught our first glimpse of a fleeing tail.
First contact meant business time and like some sort of preplanned military maneuver Giles proceeded to flank the target from the next alley over while I doubled back to where I hoped the fox would have no choice but to pass through. Sneaking through the neighbourhood alone with my weapon of choice drawn close to my chest I was ready to catch any fleeing action on my deadly Panasonic camcorder. As I walked into the centre of a crossroad section of paths the fox appeared from my right and dashed around the nearest corner at the first sight of me. No matter to me, I had caught my first foxy rear end on camera, I don’t think it had potential air time on the BBC but as far as my fox project went it was a definite starting point.
We returned to the same areas on the following Monday night with hopes that Cotham would be significantly quieter on a weeknight, and we were right. It wasn’t long until we spotted our first pair of fox eyes watching over us from the top of a garage and as I quickly scrambled to catch the figure on my camera an additional Cotham canine joined us on a nearby wall. After a few minutes the pair finally decided they had bigger plans for the night and jumped down into the gardens behind them. As I eagerly stopped to check the footage I was oblivious to another individual that had snuck up on us from the road behind us. Again I followed the same surprised, scrambling procedure as I attempt to catch another fox on camera but it seemed this one was quite content to inspect the gutters and pavements while we while stood silently on the opposite side of the street. As I watched the fox carry on with its scavenging I was once again amazed by how many surfaces foxes feel they need to urinate on, if a fox isn’t sniffing, it’s peeing. To anybody that isn’t aware of what fox urine smells like, it is the smell that you smell in any suburban area that supports a few areas of green for foxes to hide in. For an area the size of Cotham there must be a healthy few generations of foxes and I’m positive that by now each one is tired of being reminded of where other members of the population have been recently. For the next few hours Giles and I scouted the area and came across various fox encounters near and far, most notably a rather noisy fox who caught our attention by repeatedly and rather clumsily walking over the same loose drain cover. As we stood a few feet away with our torches the fox again did not seem to mind our presence and carried on investigating the ground behind a grated fence.
Two nights searching in the Cotham and Kingsdown area had shown considerable success but I feel the constant searching and chasing of foxes will prove to be impractical if I’m ever to capture high quality and intimate fox behaviour but I feel for an initial scout the results are highly promising and I’m looking forward to returning more prepared next time. The night before my departure from Bristol I was driving home when I spotted the unfortunate sight of a dead fox on the side of the dual carriageway, I decided this side of urban wildlife would also be an important component to include in my upcoming film CITYFIED so I returned with my camera equipment to film the sight and take some images in an attempt to portray the wild and urban elements to the city of Bristol and the consequences of when they both mix.