Foxes on tour – Lucy Jones’ Foxes Unearthed

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Foxes are personal for me. We go way back.  Foxes, real and imagined, are woven through the fabric of my childhood. The fictional foxes take the form of Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, the adorable cub jigsaw puzzle I completed over a hundred times, and tales of ‘blooding’ during hunt scenes in the old-fashioned pony books I read.

This was the backdrop against which I encountered real foxes. At night, we would go foxing.

To an onlooker, it would have appeared as if we were lamping – seeking to dazzle foxes with a bright light so as to shoot them. Not so. My Dad used to take us out in the Landrover and we would use the headlights to find foxes in the dark, which would freeze for a moment staring at us. We would enjoy watching them, becoming experts at spotting their reflective eyes.

You see, unlike many farmers, my father never shoots foxes and actively welcomes them on to the farm. Nevertheless, we’ve had many incidents of other people trespassing to kill them. My Dad with a dead fox in the back of his truck and tears in his eyes is not an uncommon scene. Someone detests foxes so much they aren’t even able to tolerate them on someone else’s land.

It is this love and hate juxtaposition that Lucy Jones explores in Foxes Unearthed, A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.

Despite being a naturalist, and trying to read natural history books, I confess to finding them on occasions dry and lacking in ‘hook’. I was relieved to find that was not the case here. In common with my favourite nature writers, Melissa Harrison and Helen MacDonald, this book offers that personal voice that makes it all mean something to the reader, and roots it in a modern, human reality.

Well-presented facts and information are all very well, but it was the glimpses of Lucy, as if seen through trees, that really made this book work for me. Skilfully interweaved amongst fiction, fact and folklore, we learn about her relationship with foxes. She visits people who keep them as pets and, in a heart-stopping section, she joins hunt-saboteurs in the field.

This book conveys a deep love and respect for our natural world, whilst somehow managing to do justice to both the love and the loathing of foxes. Lucy is not pollyannaish about foxes – she recognises their wildness and their negatives, but she explains that most problems people encounter with them are due to human actions (eg hand feeding or poor poultry management), combined with the media’s desire to sensationalise and scandalise. Thus it is easy to believe we have ‘menaces’ and ‘dangerous predators’ growing in numbers and becoming more of a threat – when really there is no evidence for this. It simply makes a better headline.

I learnt a lot from this book. Highlights for me include discovering that a fox lived on the top level of the Shard and also that the average weight of a fox is approximately 6 kg. That’s the same as my (yes, ok, she is a bit tubby) pet cat. My local paper has yet to report on the ‘massive tabby terrorising the area.’

The language throughout is evocative and descriptive without sacrificing precision, concision or humour.

This is a subtle, richly-layered and deeply satisfying read, full of energy and enthusiasm. Those who enjoy fact and research will not find it lacking, whilst those, like me, who want a personal voice and thought-provoking incision with entertainment will storm through the pages… like a hunt through the countryside.

 

Thanks to Elliot & Thompson for supplying me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Foxes Unearthed was published on 16th March 2017 in paperback and is also available in hardback. Lucy’s blog tour continues over with BookishBeck.wordpress.com tomorrow.

Win a copy of ‘Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons.’

 

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Forget what the dates say, today is Officially the First Day of Autumn. Bye bye sun cream, hello anorak.

Nature has felt it coming for weeks now. The swallows are restless. Youngsters are testing their wings, growing stronger daily. A last-minute second brood is nearly ready to fledge. My children collect the blackberries, chestnuts and conkers with serious determination as if hibernation is impending.

I, meanwhile, have to fight that ‘bleurgh’ feeling I get when summer is over. A proper ‘back to school’ slump into a more indoors existence, when children argue and the television becomes more tempting. I love seasons and the sense of change, but this transition is a hard one for me. I am happiest when the swallows are here.

Still, I do know that autumn is beautiful and I try to immerse myself in its soft, muted glory. At least darkness now arrives on cue for the children’s bedtime, which certainly helps with settling them at a reasonable time.

Best of all, I’ve been curling up with Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison. It’s a rich and varied collection of nature writing. You’ll find John Clare, Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas alongside modern favourites and new discoveries; I’ve loved reading Helen Macdonald, Matt Gaw, Lucy McRobert and most fabulously of all, Jon Dunn’s moving tale of a chicken thief.

As you might expect, there are anthologies of Spring and Summer, and soon, sure as night follows day, Winter. They have all been produced thanks to a collaboration between the Wildlife Trusts and publishers Elliot & Thompson.

I am biased about loving it, for a short piece of my writing features alongside my nature writing idols.

It looks gorgeous too, perfect for gifts and very much one for the coffee table.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, then share with me what you love about autumn on Twitter @Kateblincoe or in the comments below. I’ll put your ideas in a hat and my kids will pick one out to decide the winner on Thursday 6th October (entries by midnight). The book has kindly been provided by Elliot & Thompson.

Accidental wildness

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Back to school after the half term break and we’ve let wildness slip. Well, ‘formal deliberate’ wildness that is. We’ve nevertheless still achieved something wild every day, those Random Acts of Wildness, although not necessarily of the ‘photo and tweet it’ variety.

We’ve discovered a good climbing tree. If I give them a boost up to the first branch (at my head height) they can then get scarily high. The branches seem sturdy but there is definitely an element of risk (which is why they love it so much).

My daughter is obsessed with picking wild flowers at the moment, and the leaf mantises that we are babysitting necessitate the collection of lots of bramble for them to eat. They’ve gone to school today,  I felt like such a celebrity in the playground when I was holding them!

We also had a gardening session on our jungle (aka back garden), with both kids working well together to rescue snails and prune overgrown shrubs.

At the weekend, there was a gorgeous split second of wildness when a stoat crossed the road ahead of our car, followed by 6 or 7 kits. Too cute!

I’m heartened that whilst we’ve been a bit lacking in planned nature time, we’ve still managed to make space for outdoors discovery every day.

Next on the list; a picnic to celebrate Picnic Week!

30 Days Wild – week one

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It was typical that all things were against us for our first few days of being wild. The wet and windy half-term weather combined with lots of driving for a family funeral meant we were up against it to fit in moments of nature.

Day 1: A wet walk, collecting pebbles and leaves. We wouldn’t have bothered with a walk today, given the weather, but it was good to get the wellies on and get outside.

Day 2: Hours on the M25 but there were birds to be spotted through the window – we saw a kestrel, herring gulls and two buzzards in the course of our journey.

Day 3 – 5:  This is where the game changed. We went camping to a basic, natural and beautiful campsite with lots of friends. It is harder to pick the unwild moments from the day, because there weren’t any.

Wild highlights included:

  • finding toad tadpoles
  • making mudcakes
  • collecting an incredible array of sea creatures and shells at the beach (starfish, crabs, anemones, clams, bristle worms to name a few)
  • being woken early by birdsong – there was a particularly vocal robin at 5 am
  • and mainly just being outside all the time.

This was wildness that took more than one bath to scrub off.

Day 6: Back to school, but incredible sunshine. My daughter picked poppies on the way to school (her teacher is very tolerant of the random assortment of nature that gets brought in by my collector girl on a daily basis). After school, we lay in a hammock  and looked up at the trees – we are living with Granny at the moment and enjoying her beautiful garden very much.

Day 7: We’ll be trying some art activities from ‘Collect, print and paint from nature’ by John Hawkinson later. It’s very old-school (published in 1968) and we won’t be setting up a killing jar for butterflies as recommended (using 880 ammonia or carbon tetrachloride!), but the rest is lovely!

It’s been a week of extremes – days where it has been hard to fit in wildness, and days where it has been abundant. I’m glad we’ve managed to make a little space for nature whatever the week and the weather has thrown at us.

Can you believe this still happens?

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I love it when readers send me information about causes they are passionate about. Not all of it makes enjoyable reading, though. A recent letter highlighted the grisly issue of snaring in our countryside.

Snaring is the practice of using wire nooses to trap animals, such as badgers, foxes, deer and rabbits. Now forgive me for being naive, but I’d assumed snaring was illegal. It’s one of those old country skills that I thought had gone the way of basket weaving and falconry.

In fact, the UK is one of only five European members that still allow the use of animal snares. Foxes or rabbits are often the intended victim, although other animals can be caught (including domestic cats). However, the Badger Trust reported last year that the badger cull policy was leading to an increase in the snaring of badgers, even though it is illegal to kill badgers this way.

The legislation around snaring is complex. Several best practice guides exist, such as one published by DEFRA, but these are not legally binding (although they would be referred to in court in cases of suspected malpractice).

Snaring or trapping within sight or earshot of public rights of way, including footpaths and highways is generally considered to be bad practice. Catching the wrong species, for example badgers, wild cats, dormice and otters does constitute an offence – but you have to ask how on earth this is monitored, especially given that ‘good practice’ necessitates traps are out of sight and hearing of anyone. It would take a very honest person to shop themselves for a wildlife crime when they could quietly release or destroy an injured animal that they hadn’t intended to catch.

Let’s be clear: Controlling predators such as foxes is a common part of country life, carried out by landowners around the UK. It doesn’t just happen on shooting estates either; it is part of management practices on nature reserves too. For many people, this is intolerable in itself, but whatever your view on culls, the death in most cases is by gun; it is swift and professional.

By contrast, death by snare can be lengthy, indiscriminate and painful. In short, it is an inhumane and barbaric way to kill. Even proponents of fox hunting, which is of course now illegal, could cite the economic and community benefits associated with hunting with hounds – there are no such advantages with snaring.

Fox hunting, however, was very visible and there was a clear target for protesters. Meanwhile, snaring operates in secrecy, under cover of darkness and with no publicly available timetable. This has allowed it to persist in a time when an animal welfare concern is normally enough to generate headlines.

Snaring is undeniably out-dated and ‘good practice’ is incredibly hard to police. It’s time we left the medieval age behind us and updated the law.

First published in the EDP and EADT

Image from www.antisnaring.org.uk

Someone spat on the rose bush

My book has some strange things in it – the kind of yucky, weird things that children find absolutely fascinating. The odd and wonderful way nature works, just outside our front doors, brings my family endless entertainment, giggles and fun.

Just yesterday, I heard someone complaining that the local teenagers kept spitting on her rose bush as they walked by to catch the bus. That really would be on a par with dog fouling, but when I investigated a little, it became clear that it wasn’t actually human grog (sorry, that word came to me from my teenage years), but something altogether more interesting. It was the frothy foam that surrounds the froghopper nymph, which really does look exactly like spit!

If you gently probe the froth, you will find the tiny, bright green young froghopper looking a bit disgruntled at being disturbed (well, I think it must be disgruntled but it is very hard to see its little face).  It surrounds itself in the foam as protection against predators. It is known as ‘cuckoo spit’ because it is seen around the time (now) that the cuckoos are calling – not that many of us hear them these days, but that’s a whole other story.

I was keen to feature the froghopper in my book, but how to capture its weirdness? Luckily, the book’s very clever illustrator Stephanie Laurence was able to help. Here is the froghopper in all his weird glory, thanks to Stephanie

P.S. My photo of the illustration is a bit dark but you get the idea.

froghopper

Children and real tools – really stupid or really important?

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Gardening is amazing for children. Fresh air, exercise and learning about their world all make for wholesome fun but it can also do masses for confidence and motor skills. When they are under three, then a bucket and spade can keep them occupied for ages. But as they get a little older, they ‘wanna be like you ooh ooh’, and that means proper, grown up tools.

Sharp secateurs, long handled rakes and juddering pressure washers in the hands of impetuous, impulsive individuals may sound like a recipe for disaster, but if you want your child to stay interested in gardening past pre-school age then it’s time to, gulp, hand over the tools.

The Forest School ethos includes using real tools because they teach children responsibility and risk assessment. Of course, you’ll need to do the safety chat (never run with tools, keep away from others when you are working, don’t leave them on the ground and so on) and feel confident that your child is coordinated and sensible enough to handle something potentially dangerous.

Often, you will see a whole new side to your child when they feel trusted. Part of giving them this responsibility is stepping back and letting them get on with it – helicoptering over them while they work will frustrate them. Yes, your hedge may look a little odd when they have finished, but they will be glowing.

Accidents can happen – my son was given a penknife for Christmas (aged 6). He has cut himself twice and now has a healthy respect for the blade and actually listens to my advice on how to use it safely. I hope he won’t hurt himself again, but he might. You may not be happy with this level of risk, so choose your activities to suit your own views.

If you are prepared to spend a little money, then try slightly down-sized tools that fit small hands better, thus improving the safety and ease of use. Draper’s does a good range of young gardener equipment that is reasonably priced, such as spades and rakes. They feel ‘proper’ – no babyish plastic here but include features such as a wrist strap on trowels.

And at this time of year, with everything growing like a jungle, I need all the help I can get.