As the Christmas decorations went up this year, the vulpine gentleman in the photograph above reclaimed his usual position on the hearth. Named Sebastian Foxworthy by my good self, he reminded me of yet another book I stowed away and then forgot about in my eagerness to buy the next: Lucy Jones’s Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain. I read very little in the way of non-fiction, preferring to immerse myself in alternate realities, but I have always loved the natural world and have wanted for some time now to engage with the nature writing that has proliferated in recent years. In the interests of finally taking the plunge, I decided to make the book the subject of my December post.
The book begins with an examination of the fox as it appears in history and culture. Jones reviews such famous foxes as the medieval Reynard and the hero of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox and charts the rehabilitation of the fox in popular culture from villainous vermin to amiable hero, a ‘cult icon’ whose image features prominently on merchandise and is more likely to be ‘a benign force, a friend, a support’ in contemporary literature. In spite of increasingly positive representations of the fox in recent treatments of the animal, subsequent chapters of the book explore the fraught relationship between the fox and humans and the seemingly eternal strife between the many human factions with a vested interest in the fox, whether supportive, antagonistic, or somewhere in the middle. Among the topics discussed are the predatory behaviour of the fox, wildlife management and pest control, hunting foxes with dogs, hunt sabotage, and the rise of the urban fox, all of which combine to produce a comprehensive picture of this fascinating mammal.
Although Jones appears to be generally in favour of the fox, her account of one of Britain’s most divisive animals is not a biased or one-sided study. Fair coverage is afforded to a range of different voices, from naturalists and hunt saboteurs to farmers and the pro-hunt lobby, and Jones sincerely seeks to understand what lies behind the strongly held perceptions of the many different people who are in some way impacted by the fox. What comes across throughout the book is how emotive foxes are and how their very existence tends to polarise opinion among so many disparate groups.
The people interviewed by Jones are as intriguing as the fox itself, not least because of the well-observed vignettes Jones writes about them: the South Devon sheep farmer who is happy to have foxes on her land and includes the animal in the logo for her farm; the ex-serviceman now sabotaging hunts as a means of fighting the establishment that failed him after injury; and the seasoned huntswoman who looks at Jones with disdain and moves away from her when she dares to call the hounds ‘dogs’. Where Jones is to be especially applauded is in her willingness to witness people at both ends of the spectrum in the act of their relationship with foxes, accompanying as she did in the course of her research a fell pack on a drag hunt (a hunt in which hounds follow a scent, rather than a fox) and a group of saboteurs intent on thwarting the activity of ‘cubbing’ (teaching hounds how to hunt young foxes).
In Foxes Unearthed, Jones untangles some of the complexities surrounding attitudes to foxes and ably demonstrates that much of what we love and loathe about foxes is constructed and determined by humans. From our tendency to ascribe human characteristics and intention to animal behaviour to the encroachment of urban areas on the countryside, the way we think of foxes tells us more about ourselves than it does about the fox. Whether you are pro- or anti-fox, you will find something of interest in the many stories of human interaction with foxes in Jones’s book, but given that the conflict between opposing sides in the debate is still as fresh as ever it was (see, for example, reports of clashes at the annual Tredegar Farmers’ Boxing Day Hunt in Newport, Wales this year), it seems unlikely that a single book will have the power to reconcile the views of all the parties with unwavering beliefs about the status of the fox.