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How I Got Foxed!

Today is a very special day for me. The 7th of July 2016 is forever etched into my memory; the day I became “Foxed” and my life changed forever. I was watering the lawn that sunny afternoon when a little fox cub appeared as if out of thin air. He was fascinated by the water stream and started to play with it. He was fearless, curious and very cute. I had never been so close to a fox before. Previously I had only spotted fleeting foxes from a great distance at dusk through a pair of binoculars. But this cub looked straight at me with his beautiful amber eyes, a crooked head and his oversized ears that he had yet to grow into. It was a surreal and magical moment.

I thought that this surely must be a one-off amazing experience. But it wasn’t – Freya as he was to be called (because we could not see his boy bits yet) returned the following day bringing his little sister, beautiful Faith, with him. Freya and Faith transformed my garden into their playground. Throughout the summer they returned every day to play and explore. They stayed all day and left after sunset for their nocturnal adventures in the neighbourhood.

I knew nothing about foxes at the time and their beauty, intelligence, boundless energy and happy playfulness captured my heart. I started to schedule my day around being able to watch and film them. I got well and truly foxed. The videos of the cubs’ shenanigans, such as them pouncing on my sun lounger as if it was a trampoline, reached thousands of people online. Little did I know that what started as a fun pastime would soon become my passion and calling and that a few years down the line, I would be a full-time fox guardian who dedicates her life to these beautiful animals.

I realised early on that the salad days do not last forever for young foxes and their lives can be tough and short. When Freya and Faith were only 6 months old both cubs had lungworm and I will always be grateful to the kind human who acted beyond the red tape to get me the right medication quickly, so their little lives could be saved. A very valuable lesson was learnt. The cubs grew into strong juvenile foxes who went off to explore the big wide world in the winter of 2016. I did not see them again for 9 months. By then I had rigged my garden with trail cameras, logging the many comings and goings of the wider fox clan. I gained insights into the secret lives of these foxes, a kind of soap opera that plays out mostly after dark in our urban gardens, hidden from our eyes.  When checking the footage I never knew what I would find: sometimes my heart jumped with joy when I saw two foxes playing and grooming each other; other times my heart bled for a fox that had been injured or was very ill, suffering from mange. I chose not to look the other way and help any fox in need that entered my garden. Many important and sometimes painful lessons were learned about the ethics of wildlife support and rescue.

I continue to learn and find my path as a fox guardian, helping foxes whilst they remain wild and free. To my great surprise and joy, Freya and Faith returned one day after 9 months away and reclaimed the playground of their cubhood into their prime territory as adult foxes. After their return Freya had become elusive and is now frightened of humans, however beautiful Faith recognised and trusted me as if she had never left and for years we spent many hours together under the stars just sitting with each other.  She taught me how to talk fox. Sometimes Faithy greeted me with a nose bump and even curled up right next to me to go to sleep. I never touched, trained or tamed her to do any of this. These were gifts she chose to give me of her own free will and wild heart. Recently Faith then Freya disappeared again and it has now been many months since I have seen either of them. It is the first summer in four years spent without them. I try to remain hopeful that they are still alive and well. They have already beaten all the odds by still being alive as 4 years old foxes when the average life expectancy of urban foxes is only around 18 months.

Many other foxes have touched my life – all of them unique little souls who allowed me to capture treasured moments of their lives on film to share with you. Some foxes walked into my garden in their hour of greatest need. Many tears have been shed for those I could not help or save. But many tears of joy and laughter continue to flow when I am privileged to save a precious fox life whilst they remain wild and free; or when I watch the little tinkers play with each other with no care in the world or groom one another with much tenderness and affection. Now my life is all about foxes; I film foxes, write and post about foxes, campaign and march for foxes, thrive to be a voice for foxes. Through studying the foxes in my garden and on many other locations on a daily basis, I have been able to learn so much about fox behaviour, communication, their social bonds, their illnesses and injuries.

I feel blessed that I have been able to help many foxes in need, and even save some precious lives. It is an honour that some of my fox footage has reached millions of people around the globe and I had the opportunity to fly the flag for foxes in the media, all in the hope to increase respect and compassion for these iconic yet sadly much-misunderstood creatures. Looking back over the last four years that passed since I first got foxed, the overwhelming feeling is that of gratitude. Gratitude for the friendship with wild foxes who chose me as their guardian and also the connections made with fellow fox guardians – many of us doing those little acts of kindness daily that will make a big difference to a wild animal in need. That is all we can do but it is also what we must continue to do in this world that is becoming increasingly challenging for wildlife to live in.

I must say ‘thank you’ to Freya and Faith for teaching me the secret:

“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

(Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince.)

Finally, a big “Thank you” to all of you who continue to support my work as a fox guardian. I appreciate every like, comment, share and every Penny of each donation sent.

Ophelia’s Secret Garden

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Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there. (Rumi)

The vixen was resting in the tall grass soaking up the sunshine. Next to her, Dinky, her smallest cub was mimicking mum’s every move. The warm air was scented with English roses and filled with the birdsong. Bumble bees were drunkenly buzzing by. On this summer’s eve all was well and the foxes had no care in the world. They sat perfectly still, enjoying this peaceful moment of being together. I saw this magic scene unfold on footage recorded by my motion-activated trail camera, allowing me insights into the private life of urban foxes.  The footage made me happy but at the same time very sad. What the vixen and her cubs don’t know is that very soon this secret haven that they have made their home will be turned upside down and at least partially destroyed. The peace and quiet shattered by the cacophony of building work and the tall soft grass replaced with piles of rubble, machinery and fencing. The former Masonic residential home that stands on the grounds will be converted into 19 self-contained flats and a playground will be built in the garden.

The vixen, called Ophelia, had chosen her home well; this secret garden had not been touched by humans in over two years.  The garden has re-wildered and become a peaceful, green and safe foxy retreat in the busy seaside town of Worthing. The mature Sycamore, Evergreen Oak and Lime trees at the back of the garden creates a shaded area and the mound under the mature trees had been converted into a palatial fox den: The perfect place for a vixen to safely birth and rear her young away from their biggest predators – humans.

When I received a tip-off that foxes live on the grounds of the derelict house earmarked for development, I knew that had to visit so I that could monitor them, gather evidence of their existence and do all I can to keep them safe. The iron gates to the grounds had been removed, so I was able to easily gain access, tip-toeing slowly and quietly from the lawned front garden into the mature back garden. It felt as if time stood still in this magic space, with the tall, soft grass a buffer to our busy and noisy urban world. There were so many birds singing from the top of the tall trees and bees were foraging in the meadow and from the bluebells. The sweet scent was intoxicating. And there was Ophelia, the beautiful vixen basking in the sun under a rose bush completely relaxed, her amber coat glistening in the evening sun. She tilted her head back, eyes half-closed with a foxy smile on her face until she spotted me and scurried off down the flattened pathway running through the meadow.

 

I felt guilty invading her space, as if my human presence had broken a magic spell. But I also felt called to document this fox family’s life on film and to become their voice whilst it was still possible to access the garden. Based on the trail camera footage, I was able to work out when the fox family frequent the garden and their den the most, and avoided those times when resetting the cameras, so they would not feel threatened by me.

I positioned my cameras at different angles of the almost two-acre site to understand as much as possible about how the foxes use the many different areas of this garden. Previously I had filmed urban fox families that made do using the area under decking or a shed as their den. I was delighted to be able to film at a wild fox earth as nature intended and captured footage of Ophelia doing a spring clean of her den, digging debris out of the main entrance to potentially make it wider for her growing cubs. It was magical to see how one cub called another out of the den to come and play. I also discovered that the den is used as a family larder with the vixen and her partner both caching food for the cubs to retrieve and eat later. I feel privileged to get insights into the perfect world Ophelia has created for her cubs, a wild paradise for foxes in the middle of an urban jungle.

The development is starting at a very bad time for this fox family. Even though mum is taking them to explore the surrounding gardens, they always return back to the den. All three of the cubs are still too young to fend for themselves. When the secret garden is hoarded off and the building work commences, the foxes won’t know what has hit them – all of a sudden well-travelled pathways will become inaccessible; noise and dust and dirt will fill the air and the once peaceful space void of people will be teeming with humans. From one day to the next the fox family’s safe space will be invaded and turned upside down.

On behalf of this fox family, I submitted a plea to the council. My aim is to make sure their earth will not be destroyed whilst it is still in use, the foxes won’t be harmed by the ground workers or culled by “pest” control. I cited the “Wild Mammal Protection Act 1996” that makes it and offence to kill wildlife by asphyxiation or crushing (which could be the dire consequence if the den was filled in whilst in use). I also offered to meet the developer and ground workers on site to consult them about the foxes and put notices up on the site informing ground workers about the presence of vulnerable fox cubs. I am still waiting for a reply from the council but have managed to secure a meeting with the project manager of the construction company, Cheesmur Building Contractors to inspect the site and discuss options how to keep the foxes safe during the development.

 

Many people who care about foxes have asked me: “Why don’t you trap the foxes and release them elsewhere?” The answer is simple: firstly it is illegal to trap healthy wild animals and randomly re-release them. Secondly, it would be extremely cruel for the fox to be handled in this way. Trapping is always a very stressful experience for a wild animal. To release that animal away from their extensive social network, in an unknown environment that will most likely be the territory of another fox, means that the released fox will most likely be attacked and possibly injured by the resident fox that is defending their patch. The result for the relocated fox is the sad life of a so-called “itinerant” fox – a fox that wanders around aimlessly and starving without a set territory of their own; without a place to hunt, eat and rest up safely.

Sadly this development is a done deal and cannot be stopped. And it is a positive that the development by the council will provide temporary accommodation for homeless people rather than holiday homes of city slickers. But I would like to be a tiny grain of sand in the well-oiled machine of urban development, a bit of resistance on behalf of the wildlife that will lose their habitat. They have as much a right to be here as we do.

What we can do for Ophelia, her partner and their cubs is to enable them to have a slow transition, so they can grasp the changes to their environment and move on by themselves when they are ready to.

Once the cubs disperse by the end of the summer, it might be the kindest action to deter Ophelia humanely with scent markers from using the earth next spring to give birth as by then playground build may be in full swing. The ground works could obstruct routes that Ophelia’s helper uses to bring food to her and her cubs and may also make it impossible for Ophelia to relocate her tiny cubs to a different location. So making the den unattractive to her by autumn, will give her time to scout new areas that might be suitable for her to build a den. She needs to find a garden that is not the territory of another fox, has a secluded space suitable for a den where the owner may welcome her family rather than chase them off.  I know of one garden nearby that Ophelia and her cubs visits and where the fox family is welcome. The owner of this garden welcomes and supports the foxes. However this garden may not be suitable for Ophelia to build a new den.

 

It might take the vixen some time before she finds and claims the perfect spot. Sadly, more and more people sacrifice their gardens to extend their homes or build a car parking space. Some people do not want foxes in their garden. I was called by someone recently who wanted fox cubs removed from her garden because the chew her plants and know of a person who bangs a pot loudly to shoo off fox cubs every time she spots them on the lawn. It is such a shame. To me, a garden is a wonderful window into the wild. Being able to watch foxes sleep, play and quarrel in my garden is enriching my life; with the characteristics of both cats and dogs, foxes are such beautiful and unique animals. I will never forget two fox cubs using my sun lounger as a trampoline, teaching each other how to hunt by one fox mimicking the prey and the other the hunter, pouncing on top. Witnessing scenes like this unfold live in my garden beats watching a glossy nature programme on TV for me.

Foxes are no threat to humans. They want nothing from us but just to be allowed to share some outside spaces and live peacefully alongside us. And that is not much to ask for.

I was formed from the soil
I got dirt inside of me
But I was born to be royal
I was made for glory
Take me back to the garden
Take me back and walk with me
(Crowder)

 

If you support my pleas for the foxes’ safety, please share this blog and sign my Petition to Worthing council