I’m heading into the heart of Essex in search of what is, for me, an elusive creature: the red fox.
I live in Norfolk and my encounters with foxes have only ever been fleeting, and have always been in relatively safe areas on wildlife trust reserves.
I’ve always wanted to get closer to foxes, so when I discovered Dave Blackwell’s Essex foxes through an online search, I decided that the trip down the A12 would be worth it.
Dave clearly loves his foxes and talks passionately about the individual animals he’s come to know, where they hold territory, which is the boldest, and who has hungry cubs to feed. He’s been feeding them in this 40-acre woodland for twenty years, and it only takes the sound of Dave preparing their evening meal for them to emerge from their furtive hideaways. Their woodland home is surrounded by the noisy modern world, with busy roads and brash Essex urbanisation all around, but foxes are adaptable and they appear to be thriving in this wooded paradise.
The first to emerge is a beautiful flame coated vixen with a nervous cub that barely pokes its nose from out of the undergrowth, and I fall in love with her. She sits patiently waiting at a distance, nose twitching, ears perked and swivelling, tuned in to the subtlest nuance of sound. It turns out that the thing they detest the most is human voices, and they will scatter without pause if they hear unfamiliar tones, although they appear perfectly at ease with Dave’s hushed Essex chatter.
As soon as Dave places a piece of chicken a few yards in front of the hide she trots towards the hide to fetch her prize, hurriedly racing back to feed it to her eager cub. She’s a delight to watch and I opt for a low angle to try and capture her at eye level as she comes forward. It’s a challenge to keep the autofocus on her eye and compose a shot as she comes towards the camera, but an enjoyable one. My Canon 5D MK IV gives me wonderfully detailed images, and it does a reasonable job of following my subject even at a wide aperture, but it isn’t the fastest camera in the world.
Foxes have a sweet tooth, and they’re fed fruit scones as an extra treat, and they love it. There are two different groups of foxes (although there are some individuals who overlap these), and each group is fed once, and it’s strictly rationed. However, they do get a quality supper to supplement their natural diet that would be the envy of foxes elsewhere.
After a while others emerge. A larger dog fox strides out with confidence and the attendant magpies scatter. Only the day before, so Dave tells me, another photographer got a shot of a fox that caught a magpie, apparently the bird had been scoffing the fox’s dinner and only noticed it sneaking up behind when it was too late.
The other group of foxes are more reticent and less willing to make an appearance. They are more like as you’d imagine wild foxes to be. Wary, watchful, and mindful of every movement or sound, yet they can’t resist the temptation of a fruit scone or two.
I only get fleeting visits from these foxes, and there are so many magpies that at times it becomes difficult to see a clear shot through the crowd when a fox does appear. The hide is positioned at the end of a long track, which makes a pleasing backdrop for a shot, that is if the foxes do as I’d like them to and canter towards me. Except that foxes just don’t do that, and what happens is they stealthily wind their way undetected through the undergrowth, and I just catch a slight shift in tone or a muted form slinking through the tall grasses that gradually evolves into a slender auburn coated creature. Its emergence is a bit like focussing a pair of binoculars, watching as the blur becomes crystal clear. And of course, it takes its meal and trots off down the track, so I only ever get a view of a fox disappearing, and sometimes peering back teasingly as it reaches the very end of the track.
Eventually the light fades, as does my sightings of these wonderful animals, and I decide that it’s time for the journey north towards home. Four hours have flown by, and what a delight and privilege it has been to have a glimpse into these foxes’ lives.
Dave Blackwell’s foxes can be found online under ‘The Fox Hide Experience’, or he has set up a Facebook group for photographers to share their experiences. Click on the links if you would like to find out more and visit these Essex foxes for yourself.
If, like me, you love wildlife and want to see an end to the barbaric practice of hunting with dogs, then please do go to the League Against Cruel Sport's website and give whatever support you can.