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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Lowland and Hill Fox


WITH a very troubled face, the game-keeper came in to report a tragedy of the previous night. The pheasantry had been entered, and seventeen birds taken or killed. By a diabolic ingenuity the depredator had managed to get over, or through, the wire-netting fence. A great deal of noise was made about the loss. Blame was scattered indiscriminately. There was but one oversight. The chief offender was overlooked. He was a chartered raider.

My host asked me if I cared for a walk. A young hound, blotched black and brown, loosely put together as growing lad, mainly feet and head, sprawled along the moist path. Awkward and good-natured, it insisted on following us to the edge of the lawn, where a gap in the hedge let us through, on to the grass. It was being "walked" against the approaching day for puppy judging: a curious system of boarding-out, con fined, so far as I know, to young foxhounds.

The country round about was mainly grass and woodland, an excellent combination for scenic effect, of that soothing and idyllic kind known as pastoral. Some workmen were engaged in making gateways, for the benefit of those who would rather not take the fence. A somewhat ingenious latch, easily lifted by the whip, enabled the rider to gain passage without dismounting. Thus there would seem to be a theatrical element in sport: an appearance of daring meant to impress the gallery. The great shaggy Highland cattle lent the last picturesque touch to the environment. Down the face of the green slope we went, to the stream running along the foot. "I brought you to see this, because I thought you would be interested." There was much to interest.

It was a fox’s earth, wider than, but in no other way differing from, a rabbit’s hole. Though not naturally a burrower, the fox may enlarge what is already there. In this case, it seemed to have taken possession after, probably, consuming the previous tenant. The surroundings were untidy and unsavoury to a degree. The fox is not a clean feeder, nor does it take the trouble one would look for in so quick-witted an animal to remove the tell-tale evidence of its whereabouts.

It were difficult to say what of fur and feather was not there. A casual glance showed hare and rabbit, wood pigeon1 and some trophies from the farmyard; altogether an excellent larder.

Two heron rose as we approached. Other parasites were known to come; wild creatures that crawl up, or drop down from aloft, when the tenant is occupied elsewhere. The carrion crow finds the heap congenial, also the magpie, with which the surrounding woods abound. Rascals, both of them. Sometimes their effigies are added to the pile. A tempting bit is placed within easy reach, while the trapper is out of sight, just within the hole. Set a thief to catch a thief. Even the more reputable had no objection to share in the spoil. Is it not so in human life? The fox has quite a big following.

My companion was curious and thoughtful. He picked up one after another of the fragments, examined each carefully, and let it fall. At length he seemed to get what he was in search of. An indulgent smile—such as that of a parent at the clever trick of some mischievous child—broke over his face. "You know that, I suppose?" It was the feather of a cock pheasant.

A careless hand took up the relics of the partridge. Its presence was a matter of course, calling for no remark. The feathers went uncounted. No wire-netting was set around. It lived out in the field, and had to take its chance. Leaning with his arms on the fence, the owner had watched the fox as, in broad daylight, it quartered the field, or stalked the sitting bird against the wind, or along the hedgerows. It was shrewdly suspected of picking up the chicks tottering among the green corn-stalks, and so decimating the coveys for the wing. Even now, with the vixen out on the forage, their calls come in from all around.

Yet it was a shooting county, second to none in Scotland. On the fields and pastures round the manor-house the first of September was a red-letter day, as the twelfth of August on the hills. To the stay-at-home squire of the old school it had a charm all its own, a savour of the harvest, - a fulness of restful and idyllic traditions. He walked across the young grass, and the heavy whirr of wings was music to him. He glanced at the turnips, less as food for the cattle than as shelter through which he would wade, until his two liver-coloured Irish spaniels stood to the point.

And here was wholesale slaughter condoned; against the increase of which no precautions were taken. Inside were five cubs. For their growing appetites this pile had been raised. It would be added to at nightfall, when vixen and dog returned with the spoils of the day, and through the nights and mornings to come. Very simply could the pangs of hunger have been allayed.

A spade would bring them forth, and a shot do the rest. Soon would they be abroad, foraging for themselves. Still they would grow, nor would any check be placed upon their depredations till the cub hunting, at the back end, when the mischief had been done, and partridge shooting had passed its hey-day. The excuse for donning a red coat, the meet by the leafless wood, and the warm gallop over the winter fields cover a multitude of sins.

In the absence of other food—an exceptional condition, perhaps, in a countryside like this—the vixen might take a lamb. Perhaps no wildling naturally takes tame animals, except as the survival of instincts dating from the time when both were wild. The fox which raids the flock is a rascal, and if many do, it only shows that they are demoralized by their semi-artificial life. The master of the hounds pays the damages; with a shrug of the shoulders when too many lambs are killed, but without reflecting on the character of the thief, or the honesty of the account.

The scene is not always so lifeless. The raider slips in with the supper in his mouth. Half an hour after, when appetites are appeased, the family appear through the opening. All work is not good even for foxes. Evening is the playtime, the break in a strenuous life, the one hour of innocence. So it is through the range of wild life. The vixen puts aside her cunning and her gravity.

Lying down on her back, she pats with her paws, and watches the cubs as they roll over and over, like so many puppy-dogs. Nothing is more delightful than to see a family of foxes at their evening play. It is then that the gamekeeper comes about, and from a distance—that he may not disturb the revel—counts up his treasures and sees that there are five. Likely enough the vixen knows he is there, and that he will do no harm.

This is a hunting as well as a shooting county. The gamekeeper has a complex duty unknown on the moors and to the highland gillie. He must look after his game, and he must look after his vermin; he must know where his partridges are nesting, and where his foxes are cubbing; he must make enclosures for his pheasants and coverts for enemies; he must raise his game in captivity and in due season turn them out: so, if need be, must he do with his foxes. If the stubble and turnips must yield a normal number of coveys, the coverts must also yield. Indeed, hunting is the more popular form of sport.

Here, then, is an interesting state of things. Vermin are preserved. Wild life is not only left to keep its own balance, but man comes to its assistance. Whereas, under natural conditions, the number of foxes would probably be less than it is, man maintains it at the highest level the countryside will stand.

The outcome is that game is not killed out. Enough are left to satisfy all, save those who aim at a partridge poultry yard. In crossing the field one startles, and is startled by, the covey. In cutting the rath grass, the scythesman lays bare the olive eggs. More would be there but for the advantage lent to the fox. It is not quite a fair test. In the duel, partridges learn to look after themselves, that is, are really wild birds. They are alert on the ground and strong on the wing. So it is on the fields.

On the hills the balance is on the other side, so far, at least, as men can influence it. Whereas grouse is a decaying cult, whose future gives rise to serious misgivings, the partridge is robust, with a reserve of vital energy. There is thus a sporting element in the lowlands absent from the hills, if for no higher motive than to guard the interests of another sport. For the sake of the partridge alone it is worth while to preserve the enemy; but if the fox can be made to serve a use of its own, there is no reason to grumble.

Foreigners do not understand this fox-hunting of ours. They call it running after an evil-smelling animal. A half-serious proposal has been made to present us with all the cubs. So the genius of nations differs even in sport. According to George Du Maurier, an English host asked a distinguished Frenchman how he liked "the meet." With characteristic suavity he pronounced it charming. "But," with an inimitable raising of the shoulder, "zare was no promenade, no band of music—nossing." It is just possible that the criticism has some point. Fox-hunting may not have all the elements of a refined sport; but it saves one native animal which must otherwise have disappeared, and keeps in health another which must have been enervated. Round the manor-house it preserves the balance of life.

A northern cult are the foxes. They grade into one another, mainly as they approach or cross this or that parallel of latitude, to live under differing climatic conditions. It is simply the influence of environment acting upon a single species whose varieties would probably cross, over the whole range. The differences are on the surface. The fur may be touched as with hoar frost, or snowed over. We speak of the silver and the white fox. The silver fox is lovingly known to the furrier; and in the winter wear of the dainty.

The lowland fox grades into the hill fox. That is, as far as the range within our seas will allow them to go apart. There is neither gap nor line between. On approaching the hills, the fox begins to vary. The change is not in colour, at least, not much. Such as it is comes about naturally enough. In the rougher country certain muscles are brought into fuller play. Length of leg gives an advantage, and so a stronger frame is built up, standing higher from the ground. Over a certain common area the two varieties cross, and are indistinguishable.

A stronger character goes along with the stronger build. The coverts are natural, the range ample, the life free, unpampered, and uncribbed. It is a wild animal, living under perfectly wild conditions, wild as the otter of the highland stream, wild even as the banished wolf. All this appears in its more upright gait, and bolder survey of the intruder on its haunts.

South of the Tay it is bad form to kill a fox. Captain Forrard, passing on his hunter, asks after Mrs. Shoddington’s collie. "Ah, Fanny, poor dear; our keeper shot it in mistake for a fox." Out of respect for the sex he held his peace. It marks the man as a boor and the woman as an upstart, ay, and a culprit as well. It is a breach of the decalogue of sport. Wherefore should the "Thou shalts" be altered into the "Thou shalt nots"?

All the heinous offences of the raider are put down against the day of reckoning. But what does it more than others? Item: it kills lambs. I am afraid it does, especially at the season of the year when the golden eagle may pick up a deer calf; so, too, does its lowland cousin. The offence is one, not so the punishment. The redress is handed over to the shepherd, who smiles at the loss of his lowland lamb; but here has no redress, save to take it out of the culprit.

As is often the case, the evil is much exaggerated. The wilder an animal the less it cares to touch what is not wild. It may have a contempt for the herded, or a vague sense of wrong in outwitting the herd. Certainly it is not guilty of one tithe of the nefarious deeds of its cousin. Both may sneak away with a hen, while carrying off a rabbit with a certain measure of self-respect. A lowland fox will enter a pheasantry much more readily than a hill fox. A single cunning collie dog, which may well belong to the shepherd, will do more damage to a flock in a night than all the foxes on the hill for a season.

An increasing number of upland moors have no sheep on them. The reason is that these hills have been taken for moor or forest. If the sheep farmer grumbles at the fox for taking an odd lamb, much more does he grumble at the sportsman for making lambing impossible. If Saul has slain his thousands, David has slain his ten thousands. If a gun is to be put into the shepherd’s hands to solve the lambing question— why, it might be awkward!

Remains of grouse appear among the debris by cairn or moraine. But so were the fragments of other game found round the earth by the streamside, and not a word said, nor any steps taken, nor any blame, moral or otherwise, attached. As the partridge to the lowland fox, so the grouse to the hill fox. But the point of view is not quite the same. Traps are so set round the lair that when the vixen comes out she must get into one of them. The cubs die of starvation, and the dog fox when he arrives to see what has come over his mate is shot.

As a matter of fact he does not kill many grouse. The wing is sufficient protection to any vigilant bird against a ground enemy. If he falls an occasional victim, that only means that his vigilance should be increased. He must learn to look about him more sharply, be fitter to live, and be a game bird. The fox is as much a friend of the sportsman as the golden eagle, and takes less toll for it; the gun turned on him shoots a friend. If the grouse is to be as virile as the partridge, like the partridge, it must owe it to the fox.

The white hare has no wings, and is much more easily got. The main function of the hare seems to be to feed the golden eagle and the fox, and keep them from seeking food elsewhere. Many troublesome smaller creatures, which by increase of numbers might become vermin, are consumed in times of stress. The evil manners live in brass, the virtues we write in water. For his grave misdemeanours the only fine exacted from the low-and fox is that, some day or other, will be a run for his brush. Is it not time that the hill fox had a run for his brush?

It seems to me an indictment against sport that out of three or four possible animals—for our country is not rich—it should be unable to find a place for the likeliest of all. The factors are present,—a game animal, and an arena which gives the quarry an advantage. What more is wanted? Hunting is said to be impossible. Certainly, hunting of the showy sort—such as suggested to the foreigner an obvious omission— were not easy, and might lead to a break-neck down the corrie. But hunting with thew and sinew, if not easy, is quite possible, and presents even certain attractions. All that is wanted is a sportsmanlike spirit. There is a waste of good material, a marvellous lack of ingenuity. Can no one come to the aid of heavy-witted man?

Sportsmen go to the stream without a horse— which might be awkward there also, and probably put them in the water. In the otter hunt we seem to have a new form of sport, or perhaps a revival of old healthy forms. Women wade waist deep after the quarry. The doing of it opens a new world—the morning air, the cool shadows on the pool, the mystery and grace of running water. The mountain has as much to show as the stream. The airs are as fresh, the corries cast shadows as cool and deep. Jocund morn stands tiptoe on the summit. A scramble on the slopes is as good as a scramble on the banks. Neither suggests music, and both are better than a gallop. The wildling of the breezy heights is quite as interesting as the wildling of the cool water. If the hunt saved the otter, why should it not also save a comrade? It is wretched form to give the fox over to be pelted and baited, trapped and shot at by clowns; and all for lack of wit.

If men do not care to hunt the most resourceful and beautiful animal left to us—if women do not dare to climb to the moraines, when the shadows bend west across the glens, ere they shorten on the self-shadowing hills—if the glorious brush serves no nobler purpose than for the shepherd’s dog to worry, let it be. Perhaps it is as well so. Sport might spoil the wildling, as it spoils all it takes in hand, might make it a pet or a sneak. In spite of persecution it abounds; because of persecution it is virile. If a few adults are shot and a few litters starved, sufficient escape to breed again. Some more cunning lair will be found. It is all over the highlands and the southern uplands, and there is the fierce satisfaction of having no one to thank.

In the grave wild life are play times; and moods, seen not at all, or only by those who are much abroad. When the crimson is deepening into purple along the slopes, the cubs come from the lair under cairn or moraine for the children’s hour. One who knew his faults describes the mountain fox interesting as beautiful, graceful in his every movement. Never so beautiful as when thus playing, unobserved by his enemy, man. He tells of the reluctance with which, even when he seems to deserve it, one should send a bullet among the charming group.


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