Take on Nature: Patience and poo needed for fox encounters
NATURE watching allows us to tap into primal skills that are little used in our modern world. Animal spotting and birdwatching require the stillness of the hunter, alert to sounds and slight movements.
A certain hardiness is also essential, a willingness to endure the elements as rain drips down the back of your neck, your feet freeze as you crouch in the snow, or endure midges bite and horse-fly stings during the summer.
And then of course, the ultimate test of the true nature watcher – a willingness to put your nose close to the ground to sniff a lump of pooh.
Not something I do very often, but in the words of the late English poet Ted Hughes 'the sudden sharp hot stink of fox' is one of the best ways to tell when this animal has been in the vicinity.
As a regular night driver I often see foxes, a glint of eyes caught in the headlights, a swish of tail as it disappears into a hedgerow or a full on view as it scurries along a roadside. I have spent hours sitting out at dusk, squatting on damp ground, my spot chosen after spotting a tell-tale stool.
Telling the difference between fox, badger or hedgehog doo-doo tugs at some primal instinct – the archetypal hunter-gatherer who lives under the myriad layers of civilized and cultured 21st century man.
Not that I want to hunt the foxes – don't start me on that particular subject – but to sit and watch them.
Pick a field – preferably close to a copse of trees or hedgerow – spattered with curling, pungent black pooh speckled with bits of bone and tailing off into a spiral of undigested shrew hair.
But be warned, waiting for a sight of a fox can be a long and thankless task. A badger would be welcome as well, or a stoat, although you can keep the rats, thank you very much.
It is as much a mental exercise, a test of patience in which the mind must abandon its constant scurrying, leave behind its restless wandering and settle down to wait patiently.
Indian holy men and zen monks face the same challenges. Fox watching is, for me, a secular meditation.
It is an all-year-round pastime, although there is something particularly satisfying about the winter.
Nights have passed when I have seen nothing, two or three hours when the senses are numbed, where some undefined animal seems to prowl on the peripherery of vision only to solidify into the fluttering leaves on a bush.
But then there are the nights when when as Ted Hughes describes it: “Cold, delicately as the dark snow/ A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;/ Two eyes serve a movement.”
Up close a vixen treading carefully towards me followed by a cub, or her mate with a dead crow hanging from its mouth, passing so close that I could have reached out to catch its tail.
But stay still and silent, part of the backdrop, patient to let it pass – not get up to try and follow it – sitting for a while longer in the hope that it, or another one, will pass again.
Long runs the fox and long runs the rewards for those who are patient enough to wait for them.