2013 Marsh Fox Cubs.

Well, the snow has melted and the drab greens and browns of winter have returned. The welcome exception is the bright yellow blooms that now decorate the spiky gorse bushes in Hoo Wood. A week of snow seems to have encouraged bulbs to push their shoots above-ground, gorse buds to break open, and elder leaves sprout. The growing season appears in a hurry to get started. The bluebell shoots are already visible.

I am eager to begin my fox watching earlier this year. Last year, I left it a little late last year, so I am keeping my beady eye on the north marsh vixen at the moment. January is the peak of the fox mating season. I think the vixen is using the same den a last year, and I have located the dog fox’s lie-up close by. He keeps close to the vixen, as she is only in season for three days. The cubs will be born 50 to 53 days after mating, so the north marsh vixen will be delivering sometime in March. The dog fox will be hard-pressed during April, hunting food for himself and the vixen during her confinement underground.

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The dog fox’s lie-up.

The cubs will make their first appearance above-ground in April. Hopefully, I will be there to record the event, but I am unlikely to be that fortunate. I will spend many evenings, and many hours, sitting fully camouflaged and motionless on my hard wood plank seat, in a tree overlooking the den. I hope the weather will be dry and warm.

I am looking forward to watching the vixen and the dog bring in their kills, leaving them a few feet, and later a few metres, from the den entrance. The cubs are tempted further and further from den by the lure of food. They will soon be able to predict the return of their parents and will often be outside the den, waiting for their meal to arrive. The cubs will play with the kill, throwing it repeatedly into the air, play-fighting and stealing it from each other. If anything disturbs them, all the cubs, perhaps six, will retreat underground in a flash. The bravest cub will creep from the den to have a look around and sniff the air. If everything appears quiet, the other cubs will follow in quick succession.

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The vixen’s den.

In June, the vixen will leave the cubs in the den, whilst she helps the dog with the hunting. This is the best month to see the cubs playing above-ground.

Snow on the marsh.

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Otter Paw Print,

(Click on image to enlarge)

25th January 2013: It doesn’t snow often in the UK Midlands; when it does fall it rarely lasts for more than a week or two. Snow arrived a week ago: early Friday morning. Virgin snow carpeting the marsh offers an excellent opportunity for me to see which animals are active over a known time, and how far and where they have roamed. The snow in Hoo Brook Wood (not Hoo Wood) was peppered with animal tracks. Badgers, foxes, muntjacs, mice, mink, rats, pheasants, ferrets, many kinds of birds, they all seemed to have had a wail of a time.

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Mink tracks.

Nothing much had moved through Wilden Meadow over the past 24 – 30 hours, apart from rabbits, pheasants, and the north marsh foxes. There has been plenty of activity around North Pond, though. I followed a set of fox tracks to a thick bramble patch on a knoll I know to be their summer den. Three cormorants sat on the power lines, west of North Pond, above the river. A couple of buzzards flew down from Hoo wood. Green woodpeckers squawked frantically as they sped from one tree to the next. Magpies shrieked at me, as did jays. Many other smaller birds chirping and flitted about, adding a little extra ‘feel good’ factor to a freezing cold day. A single rabbit had fought its way through the snow, in the direction of the beach. Marsh cows bellowed from the north pasture; one of them, in particular, has a really freaky bellow that sounds like some kind of strange exotic bird call.

Various water birds called from the flooded withy wood. I call it a withy wood, but there are many different kinds of trees growing in there, including willow, alder and silver birch. I saw vague, dark, bird-like shapes moving about on the water, but not clearly enough to identify. A coot called from somewhere nearby, and there was at least one moorhen in there too. I crept slowly, one step at the time, through a tangle of bracken, brittle willow-herb and various other general scrub. Eventually, I reached the line of closely growing, spindly, trees surrounding the hidden pool. I know this pool well, having explored it many times during the summer, but the water is too deep at the moment to venture too far into it. Trying not to alarm the birds, I used binoculars to peer through the tightly packed tree trunks. I saw stands of tall bulrushes growing in black water, but no water birds. I recognised a few duck calls; there were others, though, that I couldn’t identify. The short, sharp, double and triple whistle, that has attracted my attention for a quite a while, Dominique thinks is a Redshank. Dom has a far better grip on bird calls and identification than I do; she regularly surveys this area for the Trust. I stood and waited amongst the trees, in freezing water, for perhaps fifteen minutes without seeing a single bird. Boredom got the better of me, and I gave up. I trudged back crunching through ice-covered water to the track, and continued towards the beach.

The beach was strangely without signs of animal activity. The rabbit track I had seen earlier had turned from the path and moved off towards to north pasture. Usually, the beach is a rabbit hot spot. Looking back, it was my own winding, ragged foot prints that spoiled the pristine snow.

The first human footprints I saw, apart from my own, were those, I assumed, of the grazier visiting the cows in the north pasture. Judging by the marks in the snow, he/she used a sled to transport whatever was needed by the cows that morning.

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Otter tracks at the north end of the corridor.

Further along the corridor to the tenant farmer’s field, an otter track followed the river bank. The trough the otter makes in the snow stretched into the distance, towards the field gate. As always, fox paw prints dogged the otter prints. The fox will follow any track in its territory, even mine. The otter had left the river ten metres north of the field gate, and continued walking north along the corridor to return to the river at a point where the corridor turned sharply away from the river bank –  a distance of around 150 metres. Dominique and I saw a similar otter track in the snow, in exactly the same place, early last year.

I climbed the north gate to the tenant farmer’s field. The north marsh fox had squeezed under the gate before me. It had trotted along the same riverside path that I follow. Now and again the fox left the path to search around the base of a tree trunk, or to investigate the track of a small animal on its way to the river bank. At one point it had walked out along a snow-covered branch overhanging the river, leaving its paw prints as evidence. At the south gate of the tenant farmer’s field, the fox turned left, and headed towards the middle wood. The south gate leads to the south marsh.

On the other side of the gate were the tracks of the south marsh fox. It had walked up to the gate, turned towards the river, mooched about on the silt bank for a while, and then walked back the way it came. Just like the north marsh fox, the south marsh fox used the riverside path.

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Otter tracks at the north end of the south marsh.

Halfway along the south marsh it dawned on me that I couldn’t hear any bird song. There wasn’t any animal tracks in the snow either. It was a bit spooky down there, and a little like a snow desert I thought. I paid particular attention now, and searched for animal signs along the riverbank, around brash piles, and close to trees, but I didn’t find any! At last, I saw a track crossing the path between the drained south pool to the river. It was an otter track. The otter had climbed out of the river, up the bank, across the path and had walked 25 metres out into the empty pool, did a loop and returned to the river. As with the otter track in the corridor, fox paw prints ran to the side and in between the otter’s.

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Otter and fox tracks on the drained south pool.

The otter and fox tracks were the only sign of animal activity I could find on the south marsh. I found a fox lie-up in an old brash pile, and the likely site of the south fox’s den at the far end of the marsh. I realise that I was only looking at a maximum 30-hour time slot, but I did expect to see more signs of life on the south marsh. Maybe all the animals had moved to the north marsh when the trees were being felled, and have not bothered to return. Perhaps the south marsh fox has eaten all the animals. I don’t know! Compared with the north marsh, though, the south marsh does seem desolate. Perhaps the animals will move back in spring. Further investigation is necessary. . . .