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The Song of the Foxes

If I were asked what is the most memorable colour in the natural world, off the top of my head I would say a red deer stag in early summer or perhaps the silver flash along the flanks of a mackerel when it is lifted out of the water looking as though it was sheathed in mother-of-pearl.

But one stands out above them all, and that’s the flame-red coat of an adult Highland fox. If you haven’t seen this in real life, you won’t really understand.

It’s something that doesn’t figure in your standard illustrations of foxes on mugs and in greeting cards. You see a patch of russet on its back and flanks because your first sight of the fox is almost certainly zooming away from you.

But when it is sitting on a rock or carefully stalking its prey, unaware of your presence, there it is. It is a red so vibrant that it seems as though it is lit from the inside.

It’s brighter than an evening sunset and takes your breath away. There are 47 sub-species of fox in the world. We only have one Vulpes vulpes so let’s give thanks for the one we’ve got.

William Ralph Inge (1860–1954), English author, Anglican priest and professor of divinity at Cambridge, said: ‘It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favour of vegetarianism, while the wolf remains of a different opinion.’

And so it is with the fox. Although research has shown that less than two per cent of annual lamb losses can be directly attributed to foxes, the hardy Reynard has been persecuted from time immemorial.

Why? Of course as a carnivore the fox takes chickens, sickly red and roe deer calves, rabbits and the odd dodgy lamb. But, hey, rabbits and deer are persecuted and lambs are virtually worthless and subsidised most of their lives and if an old broiler is too fat and clumsy to reach the upper perches in the hen house, tough.

When a fox dies or is killed, another fox will take over its territory, sometimes as soon as within three to four days, meaning that the wholesale control of foxes is pointless.

No. The almost universal hatred of the fox lies much deeper in the human psyche than the annual lamb sales, evidenced in a way by a letter I have in front of me. It was written in 1965 by an enormously wealthy estate owner to her new stalker telling him that she was especially pleased he was good at killing foxes as she put exterminating them on the same level with stalking.

Perhaps Aesop, the Greek fabulist and storyteller credited with a number of tales now collectively known as Aesop’s Fables, sowed the seeds centuries ago with his story, which most children learned at school, of a bad fox that tries to eat grapes from a vine but cannot reach them. Rather than admit defeat, he states they are undesirable giving rise to the expression ‘sour grapes’.

Maybe John Macleod, the old parish minister of Morvern, hit the nail on the head when, in 1845, he wrote in the new Statistical Account of Scotland: ‘The fox is not worse than he is called, and is, no doubt, guiltless of many crimes laid to his charge; for, just as in the household, every missing tea-cup is charged against that mysterious personage Nobody, every missing lamb is charged against the fox, while there is no mention of the carelessness of the shepherd.’

When the Highland lairds parted with the land of their ancestors and the Lowland and Anglo-Saxon shepherds moved in replacing men with sheep, chaos reigned.

Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812) one of the most renowned of Scottish Gaelic poets, registered his disgust with a composition in praise of the foxes called Oran nam Balgairean (A song to the foxes): ‘My blessing be upon the foxes, because that they hunt the sheep. The sheep with the brocket faces that have made confusion in all the world, turning our country into a desert and putting up the rents of our land. Now there is no place left for the farmer – his livelihood is gone and necessity drives him to forsake the home of his fathers. The townships and the shielings, where once hospitality dwelt, they are now nought but ruins, and there is no cultivation in the fields.
‘There is no filly, nor mare with foal by her side. Gone too are the heifers that suckled their calves. No need is there for dairymaids, for every fold is broken and scattered. No lad can earn a wage save only the shepherd of the sheep. The good useful goats, they too are gone.

‘Deeply do I hate the man who abuses the foxes, setting a dog to hunt them, shooting at them with small shot. The cubs, if they had what I wish them, short lives were not their care. Good luck to them say I, and may they never die but of old age.’

Iain Thornber