Among the foxes
13/09/15In March this year I took voluntary redundancy from the civil service. I’d spent 15 years working at the Department for Education (and its various other names under different governments), but with all the stress and politics that had become part and parcel of my work environment, I’d had enough. I didn’t have a plan A for what happened afterwards – I just desperately needed a break, and the lure of a nice redundancy pay-out was obviously a big factor!
Once I’d made the decision, I decided a holiday was my top priority. My sister lives in Melbourne, and as my last visit had been more than a decade ago, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a trip Australia.
Shortly after booking my flights to Melbourne, I also decided to treat myself to a wildlife photography holiday. One of the criteria had to be that it wouldn’t put too much strain on my back (I was diagnosed with a herniated disc two years ago). After much deliberation, I decided that a trip to Alaska to photograph coastal brown bears would be a good choice. I‘d wanted to visit Alaska for a long time, and not only did now seem like the ideal time to finally fulfil my ambition, but I figured that as bears are large, relatively slow-moving animals, I could photograph them standing up (me, not the bears!). This would mean avoiding the prolonged stooping, crawling and lying down that wildlife photography often involves, that my back would struggle to cope with. I’ve published a separate post about my Alaskan adventure.
So a week after I finished work, I jetted off to Australia for 3 weeks - where I had a fantastic time catching up with my sister and her family. I took some of my camera gear - on the promise of a week’s break on the Mornington Peninsula, staying on the edge of a national park - and decided to invest some of my redundancy money in a new Canon 100-400mm f/5.6 mark II lens.
That week on the Mornington Peninsula proved something of a turning point in my photography career. I learned that I could physically push myself further than I‘d thought, as long as I was sensible and did regular stretches to manage the issues with my back. That knowledge enabled me to to go out into the field armed with confidence, which in turn transformed my whole attitude towards photography – and the possibilities it held.
As well as photographing some amazing Australian wildlife, I also experimented with other forms of photography. I shot a series of images of a ‘blood’ moon – a relatively rare lunar eclipse, where the moon turns red. I also spent an afternoon shooting creative wave compositions at the coast. This broadening of my photographic horizons gave me renewed creative enthusiasm - and was probably long overdue.
On my return home, I was brimming with new ideas for photographic projects. With so much free time stretching before me, the possibilities seemed endless.
I decided to try my hand at urban/street photography. I visited various locations around London, shooting architectural subjects - mostly with the camera on a tripod and using slow shutter speeds. I even invested in some neutral density filters to allow me to do this in strong sunlight – a brave new world indeed! I extended my ‘London’ project to my own neighbourhood, and shot a series of images (which I processed using Topaz’s Black and White Effects plug-in) that reflected the quirky, idiosyncratic and diverse nature of Walthamstow.
This was all a far cry from my old life as a wildlife photographer. And while it was an interesting busman’s holiday - and undoubtedly a valuable learning experience - the pull of wildlife photography became more and more insistent.
So I set about rediscovering my local wildlife patch. On my first few visits it was just a pleasure to see that nature was flourishing in my absence! Initially I wasn’t too bothered about the quality of the shots I took: it was more about getting to know my old haunts again, and seeing what my back could cope with. But after getting back into the groove, I must admit I became impatient to get better images, and fortunately my back stood up to what I put it through (it was at about 75% ‘normal’ mobility).
An angler I got chatting to one day put me onto a family of Egyptian geese, and I spent a wonderful couple of hours photographing the seven tiny goslings - and their very protective parents. I also got some nice images of kestrels and great crested grebes. However, the real fun started a few weeks later in June, when I came across a litter of fox cubs.
Now foxes are one of my favourite animals, and some of the most rewarding wildlife encounters I’ve ever had were with a litter of fox cubs I discovered a few years ago, that lived near the railway lines. Since then I hadn’t managed to find a litter of cubs, so you can imagine how excited I was at this new discovery.
The situation was an interesting one. One of the regulars, who I knew to speak to, confessed that he’d been feeding foxes in this particular location for a few years. As a result the parents were habituated to him, and the five cubs had become likewise. I asked him what the normal feeding time was, and he told me mid-afternoon – an unusual time for foxes to be awake and active. But it seems they had changed their habits to take advantage of this food source, intelligent and resourceful animals that they are.
I admit I was conflicted by the idea of regularly feeding the foxes. One risk was that they would become too used to people, and lose their natural caution around humans –not everybody has good intentions towards foxes. It could also mean that they wouldn’t learn to forage and hunt for themselves, and would become dependent on being fed. On the other hand, I concluded that feeding them gave them a better chance of survival, and if it’s OK for people to put out food for birds, why not foxes? Because the location wasn’t near any houses it was unlikely to turn these particular foxes into pests. So on balance I decided that it wasn’t a clear cut case of this being a bad thing, and therefore I kept my counsel.
I asked my friend if it was OK for me to observe feeding time, and he said he was more than happy for me to come along – but that I should probably stay in my car as the foxes were wary of anyone except him. This initially proved to be the case, though there were occasionally other people about – as the feeding station happened to be in a car park!
While shooting from the car meant that the foxes more or less ignored me, it wasn’t ideal –repositioning myself was problematic, and shooting out of the car window meant the angle was higher than I would have liked. So I decided to set up a camera on a beanbag, with a wide angle (16-35mm) lens and a remote trigger. The plan was to place a handful of dog biscuits on the ground, and pre-focus the lens using as small an aperture as I could get away with (usually f/11 and upwards). By watching from the car I could then press the shutter release when the cubs took the bait. It was a hit and miss affair, with various challenges to overcome – not least when one little cub decided to investigate my gear by firstly pulling on the beanbag, and then having a good chew of the lens hood!
Unfortunately one of the cubs disappeared the day after I first came across them. I’d realised it was in bad condition straight away – it was painfully thin, and too listless to even run away when I approached it. I’m sure it must have died. But the remaining four cubs all seemed well fed and lively.
Being a man of leisure meant that I was able to visit the fox family most days, and the cubs (if not the adults) quickly became used to me – to the extent that after three or four visits they were comfortable with me being out of the car. Spending so much time with them I learned to recognise them and see the differences in their personalities. I named them Black Legs, Red, Tubby and Yellow – anthropomorphic I know, but I never claimed to be a scientist! Strangely, from what I could ascertain, all four cubs were female. Black Legs was the cheeky one, and became my favourite. Red was the feisty, dominant one. Tubby and Yellow were both quite timid, and I saw them less than the other two.
Over the weeks I was privileged to observe and photograph lots of different behaviour. Squabbles were not uncommon, and occasionally two of the cubs would have a full on barny where they would wrestle on their hind legs. This was always prefaced by much arching of backs, flattening of ears and gaping of mouths – I learned to be ready when this happened, as the ‘fights’ usually only lasted a few seconds. The cubs would often chase each other about, and also chase the magpies that frequented the car park and scavenged the food put out for the foxes. This behaviour made for great photo opportunities, and I often filled my boots – and several memory cards! I became frustrated with the auto-focus on my Canon 1D mark 4 - it often couldn't keep up with the frenetic action, and I ended up missing quite a few shots. So shortly before I flew to Alaska I bought a Canon 1DX - which I haven't regretted for a second, despite the eye-watering price tag!
After spending ten days in Alaska, I returned to my east end fox family to find them all still doing well. They took a day or two to get used to me again, but after that it was business as usual.
One afternoon Black Legs arrived with a dead blackbird in her mouth. It happened so quickly that unfortunately I wasn’t quite ready and didn’t make the most of the opportunity before she ran into the bushes, no doubt to hide her prize from her siblings! A few days later she got hold of a baby starling, and I was able to photograph the rather grim sight of her tossing the little corpse in the air repeatedly, like a toy.
I managed to photograph other behaviour, such as the cubs drinking from a puddle after it had rained, pouncing on each other, and playing with various objects they found lying around near the den.
Sadly, around a month after I first came across the litter, another of the cubs – Yellow – suddenly stopped appearing at afternoon feeding time. A month after that, Tubby also disappeared. It was difficult not knowing what had happened. I suppose there was a chance that they had dispersed to other territories or found alternative food sources, but I couldn’t help fearing the worst. Fox cubs tend to stick together until they are six or seven months old, when usually they will have learned to forage for themselves, as their parents stop bringing them food. By the time Tubby disappeared the cubs would have been around five months old – and with a regular food supply available, it didn’t make sense to me that they would turn their noses up at it.
So that left the two most confident cubs – Black Legs and Red. As I’ve watched them over the past month they are quickly becoming proper foxes. I was so excited when I saw Black Legs carrying a fully grown rabbit in her mouth a couple of weeks ago, I felt an almost paternal sense of pride! She has stood up to Red, who often used to bully her when they were small, and now the two seem to be affectionate when they’re together, but quite independent. Red sustained a nasty injury around the time Tubby disappeared – it looked as though she’d been bitten high up on her hind leg, and was limping badly for a day or two. I wondered whether it was linked to Tubby’s disappearance, but I guess I’ll never know. Fortunately she seems to have recovered well, though is perhaps a bit less confident than she used to be.
All good things must come to an end, and six months after I gave up my job at the DfE, I started full-time work again. That was a week and a half ago, and it was a bit of a shock to the system! It had been such a luxury having no responsibility to anyone but myself, and no pressure or stress. Having the opportunity to explore creative opportunities, get out in nature, and spend time with such an endearing family of foxes has been brilliant, and I count myself very fortunate. I’ve been back to see them at weekends, and both remaining fox cubs are doing well – and still recognise me, despite my extended absences (I suspect they’ve memorised my car number plate by now!). I’m hoping that both will survive long enough to reach adulthood, and that I’ll have the chance to continue my relationship with them,until perhaps they have cubs of their own – only time will tell.
You can see a selection of my best images in the foxes gallery.