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Ch. 9: The Shepherd on Foxes

A fox-trapping shepherd--Gamekeepers and foxes--Fox and stoat--A
gamekeeper off his guard--Pheasants and foxes--Caleb kills a fox--A
fox-hunting sheep-dog--Two varieties of foxes--Rabbits playing with
little foxes--How to expel foxes--A playful spirit in the
fox--Fox-hunting a danger to sheep


Caleb related that his friend Shepherd Gathergood was a great fox-killer
and, as with hares, he took them in a way of his own. He said that the
fox will always go to a heap of ashes in any open place, and his plan
was to place a steel trap concealed among the ashes, made fast to a
stick about three feet high, firmly planted in the middle of the heap,
with a piece of strong-smelling cheese tied to the top. The two
attractions of an ash-heap and the smell of strong cheese was more than
any fox could resist. When he caught a fox he killed and buried it on
the down and said "nothing to nobody" about it. He killed them to
protect himself from their depredations; foxes, like Old Gaarge and his
son in Caleb's case, went round at night to rob him of the rabbits he
took in his snares.

Caleb never blamed him for this; on the contrary, he greatly admired him
for his courage, seeing that if it had been found out he would have been
a marked man. It was perhaps intelligence or cunning rather than
courage; he did not believe that he would be found out, and he never
was; he told Caleb of these things because he was sure of his man. Those
who were interested in the hunt never suspected him, and as to
gamekeepers, they hardly counted. He was helping them; no one hates a
fox more than they do. The farmer gets compensation for damage, and the
hen-wife is paid for her stolen chickens by the hunt, The keeper is
required to look after the game, and at the same time to spare his chief
enemy, the fox. Indeed, the keeper's state of mind with regard to foxes
has always been a source of amusement to me, and by long practice I am
able to talk to him on that delicate subject in a way to make him
uncomfortable and self-contradictory. There are various, quite innocent
questions which the student of wild life may put to a keeper about foxes
which have a disturbing effect on his brain. How to expel foxes from a
covert, for example; and here is another: Is it true that the fox
listens for the distressed cries of a rabbit pursued by a stoat and that
he will deprive the stoat of his captive? Perhaps; Yes; No, I don't
think so, because one hunts by night, the other by day, he will answer,
but you see that the question troubles him. One keeper, off his guard,
promptly answered, "I've no doubt of it; I can always bring a fox to me
by imitating the cry of a rabbit hunted by a stoat." But he did not say
what his object was in attracting the fox.

I say that the keeper was off his guard in this instance, because the
fiction that foxes were preserved on the estate was kept up, though as a
fact they were systematically destroyed by the keepers. As the
pheasant-breeding craze appears to increase rather than diminish,
notwithstanding the disastrous effect it has had in alienating the
people from their lords and masters, the conflict of interest between
fox-hunter and pheasant-breeder will tend to become more and more acute,
and the probable end will be that fox-hunting will have to go. A
melancholy outlook to those who love the country and old country sports,
and who do not regard pheasant-shooting as now followed as sport at all.
It is a delusion of the landlords that the country people think most
highly of the great pheasant-preserver who has two or three big shoots
in a season, during which vast numbers of birds are slaughtered--every
bird "costing a guinea," as the saying is. It brings money into the
country, he or his apologist tells you, and provides employment for the
village poor in October and November, when there is little doing. He
does not know the truth of the matter. A certain number of the poorer
people of the village are employed as beaters for the big shoots at a
shilling a day or so, and occasionally a labourer, going to or from his
work, finds a pheasant's nest and informs the keeper and receives some
slight reward. If he "keeps his eyes open" and shows himself anxious at
all times to serve the keeper he will sometimes get a rabbit for his
Sunday dinner.

This is not a sufficient return for the freedom to walk on the land and
in woods, which the villager possessed formerly, even in his worst days
of his oppression, a liberty which has now been taken from him. The
keeper is there now to prevent him; he was there before, and from of
old, but the pheasant was not yet a sacred bird, and it didn't matter
that a man walked on the turf or picked up a few fallen sticks in a
wood. The keeper is there to tell him to keep to the road and sometimes
to ask him, even when he is on the road, what is he looking over the
hedge for. He slinks obediently away; he is only a poor labourer with
his living to get, and he cannot afford to offend the man who stands
between him and the lord and the lord's tenant. And he is inarticulate;
but the insolence and injustice rankle in his heart, for he is not
altogether a helot in soul; and the result is that the sedition-mongers,
the Socialists, the furious denouncers of all landlords, who are now
quartering the country, and whose vans I meet in the remotest villages,
are listened to, and their words--wild and whirling words they may
be--are sinking into the hearts of the agricultural labourers of the new
generation.

To return to foxes and gamekeepers. There are other estates where the
fiction of fox-preserving is kept up no longer, where it is notorious
that the landlord is devoted exclusively to the gun and to
pheasant-breeding. On one of the big estates I am familiar with in
Wiltshire the keepers openly say they will not suffer a fox, and every
villager knows it and will give information of a fox to the keepers, and
looks to be rewarded with a rabbit. All this is undoubtedly known to the
lord of the manor; his servants are only carrying out his own wishes,
although he still subscribes to the hunt and occasionally attends the
meet. The entire hunt may unite in cursing him, but they must do so
below their breath; it would have a disastrous effect to spread it
abroad that he is a persecutor of foxes.

Caleb disliked foxes, too, but not to the extent of killing them. He did
once actually kill one, when a young under-shepherd, but it was accident
rather than intention.

One day he found a small gap in a hedge, which had been made or was
being used by a hare, and, thinking to take it, he set a trap at the
spot, tying it securely to a root and covering it over with dead leaves.
On going to the place the next morning he could see nothing until his
feet were on the very edge of the ditch, when with startling suddenness
a big dog fox sprang up at him with a savage snarl. It was caught by a
hind-leg, and had been lying concealed among the dead leaves close under
the bank. Caleb, angered at finding a fox when he had looked for a hare,
and at the attack the creature had made on him, dealt it a blow on the
head with his heavy stick--just one blow given on the impulse of the
moment, but it killed the fox! He felt very bad at what he had done and
began to think of consequences. He took it from the trap and hid it away
under the dead leaves beneath the hedge some yards from the gap, and
then went to his work. During the day one of the farm hands went out to
speak to him. He was a small, quiet old man, a discreet friend, and
Caleb confided to him what he had done. "Leave it to me," said his old
friend, and went back to the farm. In the afternoon Caleb was standing
on the top of the down looking towards the village, when he spied at a
great distance the old man coming out to the hills, and by and by he
could make out that he had a sack on his back and a spade in his hand.
When half-way up the side of the hill he put his burden down and set to
work digging a deep pit. Into this he put the dead fox, and threw in and
trod down the earth, then carefully put back the turf in its place,
then, his task done, shouldered the spade and departed. Caleb felt
greatly relieved, for now the fox was buried out on the downs, and no
one would ever know that he had wickedly killed it.

Subsequently he had other foxes caught in traps set for hares, but was
always able to release them. About one he had the following story. The
dog he had at that time, named Monk, hated foxes as Jack hated adders,
and would hunt them savagely whenever he got a chance. One morning Caleb
visited a trap he had set in a gap in a hedge and found a fox in it. The
fox jumped up, snarling and displaying his teeth, ready to fight for
dear life, and it was hard to restrain Monk from flying at him. So
excited was he that only when his master threatened him with his crook
did he draw back and, sitting on his haunches, left him to deal with the
difficult business in his own way. The difficulty was to open the steel
trap without putting himself in the way of a bite from those "tarrable
sharp teeth." After a good deal of manoeuvring he managed to set the
butt end of his crook on the handle of the gin, and forcing it down
until the iron teeth relaxed their grip, the fox pulled his foot out,
and darting away along the hedge side vanished into the adjoining copse.
Away went Monk after him, in spite of his master's angry commands to him
to come back, and fox and dog disappeared almost together among the
trees. Sounds of yelping and of crashing through the undergrowth came
back fainter and fainter, and then there was silence. Caleb waited at
the spot full twenty minutes before the disobedient dog came back,
looking very pleased. He had probably succeeded in overtaking and
killing his enemy.

About that same Monk a sad story will have to be told in another
chapter.

When speaking of foxes Caleb always maintained that in his part of the
country there were two sorts: one small and very red, the larger one of
a lighter colour with some grey in it. And it is possible that the hill
foxes differed somewhat in size and colour from those of the lower
country. He related that one year two vixens littered at one spot, a
deep bottom among the downs, so near together that when the cubs were
big enough to come out they mixed and played in company; the vixens
happened to be of the different sorts, and the difference in colour
appeared in the little ones as well.

Caleb was so taken with the pretty sight of all these little foxes,
neighbours and playmates, that he went evening after evening to sit for
an hour or longer watching them. One thing he witnessed which will
perhaps be disbelieved by those who have not closely observed animals
for themselves, and who still hold to the fable that all wild creatures
are born with an inherited and instinctive knowledge and dread of their
enemies. Rabbits swarmed at that spot, and he observed that when the old
foxes were not about the young, half-grown rabbits would freely mix and
play with the little foxes. He was so surprised at this, never having
heard of such a thing, that he told his master of it, and the farmer
went with him on a moonlight night and the two sat for a long time
together, and saw rabbits and foxes playing, pursuing one another round
and round, the rabbits when pursued often turning very suddenly and
jumping clean over their pursuer.

The rabbits at this place belonged to the tenant, and the farmer, after
enjoying the sight of the little ones playing together, determined to
get rid of the foxes in the usual way by exploding a small quantity of
gunpowder in the burrows. Four old foxes with nine cubs were too many
for him to have. The powder was duly burned, and the very next day the
foxes had vanished.

In Berkshire I once met with that rare being, an intelligent gamekeeper
who took an interest in wild animals and knew from observation a great
deal about their habits. During an after-supper talk, kept up till past
midnight, we discussed the subject of strange, erratic actions in
animals, which in some cases appear contrary to their own natures. He
gave an instance of such behaviour in a fox that had its earth at a spot
on the border of a wood where rabbits were abundant. One evening he was
at this spot, standing among the trees and watching a number of rabbits
feeding and gambolling on the green turf, when the fox came trotting by
and the rabbits paid no attention. Suddenly he stopped and made a dart
at a rabbit; the rabbit ran from him a distance of twenty to thirty
yards, then suddenly turning round went for the fox and chased it back
some distance, after which the fox again chased the rabbit, and so they
went on, turn and turn about, half a dozen times. It was evident, he
said, that the fox had no wish to catch and kill a rabbit, that it was
nothing but play on his part, and that the rabbits responded in the same
spirit, knowing that there was nothing to fear.

Another instance of this playful spirit of the fox with an enemy, which
I heard recently, is of a gentleman who was out with his dog, a
fox-terrier, for an evening walk in some woods near his house. On his
way back he discovered on coming out of the woods that a fox was
following him, at a distance of about forty yards. When he stood still
the fox sat down and watched the dog. The dog appeared indifferent to
its presence until his master ordered him to go for the fox, whereupon
he charged him and drove him back to the edge of the wood, but at that
point the fox turned and chased the dog right back to its master, then
once more sat down and appeared very much at his ease. Again the dog was
encouraged to go for him and hunted him again back to the wood, and was
then in turn chased back to its master, After several repetitions of
this performance, the gentleman went home, the fox still following, and
on going in closed the gate behind him, leaving the fox outside, sitting
in the road as if waiting for him to come out again to have some more
fun.

This incident serves to remind me of an experience I had one evening in
King's Copse, an immense wood of oak and pine in the New Forest near
Exbury. It was growing dark when I heard on or close to the ground, some
twenty to thirty yards before me, a low, wailing cry, resembling the
hunger-cry of the young, long-eared owl. I began cautiously advancing,
trying to see it, but as I advanced the cry receded, as if the bird was
flitting from me. Now, just after I had begun following the sound, a fox
uttered his sudden, startlingly loud scream about forty yards away on my
right hand, and the next moment a second fox screamed on my left, and
from that time I was accompanied, or shadowed, by the two foxes, always
keeping abreast of me, always at the same distance, one screaming and
the other replying about every half-minute. The distressful bird-sound
ceased, and I turned and went off in another direction, to get out of
the wood on the side nearest the place where I was staying, the foxes
keeping with me until I was out.

What moved them to act in such a way is a mystery, but it was perhaps
play to them.

Another curious instance of foxes playing was related to me by a
gentleman at the little village of Inkpen, near the Beacon, in
Berkshire. He told me that when it happened, a good many years ago, he
sent an account of it to the "Field." His gamekeeper took him one day
"to see a strange thing," to a spot in the woods where a fox had a
litter of four cubs, near a long, smooth, green slope. A little distance
from the edge of the slope three round swedes were lying on the turf.
"How do you think these swedes came here?" said the keeper, and then
proceeded to say that the old fox must have brought them there from the
field a long distance away, for her cubs to play with. He had watched
them of an evening, and wanted his master to come and see too.
Accordingly they went in the evening, and hiding themselves among the
bushes near waited till the young foxes came out and began rolling the
swedes about and jumping at and tumbling over them. By and by one rolled
down the slope, and the young foxes went after it all the way down, and
then, when they had worried it sufficiently, they returned to the top
and played with another swede until that was rolled down, then with the
third one in the same way. Every morning, the keeper said, the swedes
were found back on top of the ground, and he had no doubt that they were
taken up by the old fox again and left there for her cubs to play with.

Caleb was not so eager after rabbits as Shepherd Gathergood, but he
disliked the fox for another reason. He considered that the hunted fox
was a great danger to sheep when the ewes were heavy with lambs and when
the chase brought the animal near if not right into the flock. He had
one dreadful memory of a hunted fox trying to lose itself in his flock
of heavy-sided ewes and the hounds following it and driving the poor
sheep mad with terror. The result was that a large number of lambs were
cast before their time and many others were poor, sickly things; many of
the sheep also suffered in health. He had no extra money from the lambs
that year. He received but a shilling (half a crown is often paid now)
for every lamb above the number of ewes, and as a rule received from
three to six pounds a year from this source.

W. H. Hudson