Making the change from mother’s milk to mole.

Sunrise: 07.27. Sunset: 04.19

This little fella thinks he can just mosey down into the den with the mole his dad brought home, but the little female cub has other plans; they end up tumbling down the hill, only to have another cub grab and run off with moley. The mole carcass soon becomes a substitute ball in a six player game of fox cub rugby.

The cubs know when a parent is near and will often be out of the den excitedly awaiting the arrival. On those occasions when the cubs prefer to stay underground, a fresh kill will be left a good distance from the entrance to entice the cubs increasingly further from the den.

Making the change from mother's milk to mole.

Making the change from mother’s milk to mole.

Marsh Foxification.

29th March 23013                      

Sunrise 05.51 am      Sunset: 06.38 pm

I have mentioned in previous posts that foxes are not dullards. They are sometimes called vermin, but are not classified as vermin in the UK. The fox is a primary predator that eats vermin; in particular, it helps control the population of rats, pigeons and other small marsh animals. Foxes are extremely important to the delicate Reserve ecology. Without them, the marsh, and the surrounding houses and the factories might have serious rat infestation problems. I live across the road from the marsh, and I have never seen a rat anywhere near my house. The foxes are not the only marsh predator eating the rats, but they are the main one.

To my knowledge, the north marsh vixen has four dens, and I checked each one late this afternoon.

The vixen reworks the birthing den at the beginning a new cubbing season. The birthing chamber is small: just large enough for her and the cubs. The entrance is via last year’s den. A five metre long tunnel running north to south, leads to a 300 mm diameter by 600 mm birthing chamber, buried roughly 600 mm underground. One metre back down the tunnel from the birthing chamber is a 125 mm diameter vertical ventilation shaft (see the image below).

When the cubs have grown too big for the birthing den, the vixen will move them to the summer den. The summer den is basically a large cave dug into the side of a bramble covered knoll, with an escape tunnel to the rear. There is a flat grass area outside the den entrance, where the cubs can play and sun themselves on warm summer evenings. The vixen and the dog will leave food close to the entrance.

If the birthing den is compromised, or for some other reason, the vixen might need to move the cubs to a safer place. There is a third and slightly larger den they can use, again dug into a dry bank, not too far away, with an entrance tunnel driven 600 mm into a vertical bank, before turning 90 degrees into a living chamber.

There is a 4th and really well hidden den close by also; I guess this den was vacated during a mange outbreak. The reason I say this is that the summer den, and the third den are clean and used regularly; the fourth den isn’t. Outside of the cubbing season, I think the dog uses the summer den, and the vixen the smaller one, during adverse weather.

Under normal conditions, though, the foxes live above ground. They use lie-ups and cubby holes around the marsh; these might be in brash piles, under fallen trees, in hollow tree trunks, or in oddly shaped living trees, as in the image below. These above ground lie-ups are situated on the north marsh; I think near hunting hot-spots. I don’t think the foxes use the same one too often; they move around regularly, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the muntjac deer uses them also.

The more I watch the foxes, the more I understand the structure in their lives, and the more I appreciate their ecological value. However, I could say similar things about the badgers, and the Shetland cattle, but neither of  these will have a significant impact on the rat population. All the marsh animals have their part to play in the success of the Reserve, as long as they exist in sustainable numbers.

IMG_2096Marsh

Marsh Dog Fox.

IMG_469828TH  MARCH 2013

Fox lie-up at the base of a large oak tree.

IMG_776928TH  MARCH 2013

Summer Den.

2013 fox den Model (1)

Another fox watching season begins!

14th March 2013.

Sunrise 06.25 am      Sunset: 06.12 pm

This evening is the beginning of my 2013 fox watching season. The reason it begins today is purely down to foxes being on my mind for most of the week; this evening I made the effort to get things underway. I didn’t spend time up a tree watching a den, or trying to snap fox images. No, I mooched around – looking at the signs and formulating a watching plan. Last year I started too late to get images of little cuddly fox cubs.

A new eighteen foot wide fenced and gated corridor separates the lagoon field from the swamp, allowing cattle access to the far northern end of the reserve, including Hoobrook Wood and a small pasture along the east bank of the River Stour. This has worked out really well for me: a direct route to North Pond, between the swamp and the lagoon field.

On dark evenings, I can hear animals moving about on either side of the new corridor, and watch them through my night scope. The bramble tangle that covered the old northern-most filled-in lagoon has been flailed and a fenced and gated field for the cattle created. Through my night scope, I watched a couple of badgers and a fox foraging here this evening.

It really is a good time to begin things fox related. Walking through Hoo Wood this week I heard both the marsh and the Stour Hill vixens screaming. They were at it again this evening. The marsh is very definitely coming alive; no blooms yet, but rabbits are bounding about, and mallards, Canada geese, the resident moorhen, and toads are using North Pond.

When the vixen is confined in her den, and the dog fox is late delivering her dinner, she will scream from the entrance: “Call yourself a dog fox? You good-for-nothing excuse for a mate! Where’s my dinner?” The poor old dog is run ragged supplying food for the vixen and later the cubs, and it shows. He is hunting night and day. He roams the marsh as if he has the whole world on his shoulders. I’ve watched him collapse on a track exhausted. Five minutes later he is on the hunt again. He must dread April and May.

The north marsh vixen has enhanced her real-estate by digging a tunnel heading south from last year’s den, with a bolt-hole midway along its length. I am assuming her new tunnel is connected to the main den, because there isn’t any visible excavation spoil (soil). I guess she has deposited it in the old den’s birthing chamber. The vixen is very good at disguising her work; if you were passing through the area, it is unlikely that you would be aware of a den. Those not familiar with foxes and their dens would most likely think it a rabbit hole. In April, it will be the part-eaten mice, rats, moles, pigeons, rabbits, pheasants and other associated detritus scattered around that will give away the den’s location. The new tunnel is nicely formed, freshly dug, and the bolt-hole is just large enough for her to squeeze through.

If she hasn’t had her cub already, they will be born during the second half of this month. The absence of food around the den, suggests that she might not have earthed yet.

Fox cubs are born blind and deaf. The vixen will not leave their side for a couple of weeks. Unable to regulate their body temperature, they will rely totally on the vixen to keep them warm and stimulate them to urinate and defecate.

Sometime during April, the vixen will bringing her cubs above ground on warm evenings. I hope to photograph the cubs on one or two of these evening events, when the cubs are introduced to the world outside their den – if I can get it right this year. . . .

IMG_3388FOX CUBS 8TH MAY 201212TH MARCH 2013B

Fox Den Watching: 4th Visit.

10th May 2012: The weather app on my phone indicated clear sunny conditions for this evening, so I grabbed my gear and went foxing.

I climbed the tree at 6 pm and began rigging the camouflage netting, tree seat and camera lines. It was a warm with a slight breeze, but the weather didn’t really brighten up as much as I had hoped.

On a couple of occasions a cub showed its head above ground, but not for long. The parents didn’t deliver any kills. There was a sort of bonus: I was comfortable sitting in my tree. I had most of the necessary mod cons with me, including my iPod and a monopod to attach my camera to. The monopod was fixed in position with nylon cords, which meant I didn’t have to worry about my camera falling out of the tree. The RealTree netting allowed me to shift position and fiddle with my gear without worrying too much about being seen by the cubs, or their parents.

My meticulous preparations, compared with my previous visit, ensured that two and a half hours passed quietly and without interruption. Nothing noteworthy happened around the den. I didn’t see a badger, but a heron flew low over the tree canopy on its way to the heronry.  I stayed in the tree until it was almost dark, and then decided to go home for something to eat. I still had to take my dog out for his evening walk. I packed the camera in my rucksack, which was tied up the tree with me, and started to take down the netting. As I fiddled with the quick-release knots, a cub popped out from below ground. I quickly pulled the camera from my rucksack and fired off a few shots, but it was too dark, I gave up, continued packing my things away, and walked home. All in all, it was a pleasant and relaxing way to spend an evening; far healthier than sitting in front of the television eating doughnuts and drinking beer.

Taken this evening in the last of the evening’s light.