Lying prostrate amongst mangled briars, ferns and saplings,her mouth agape and her glassy eyes staring straight ahead; the first fox I ever killed was some specimen.
She’d fought. Of course she had,but with mywire noose tightening around her neck, death would’ve come swiftly. And her demise was all due to my handiwork.I was elated. After that vixen, I managed to snare a dozen foxes. Buoyed by each success, I’d lash the dead fox to my bicycle carrier and pedal the ten miles in all kinds of weather to collect ten quid from Murphy who worked at the hardware store in town. Despite their supposed cunning, foxes weren’t all that difficult to locate or catch, for an otherwise naïve 15 year-old country lad.
It’s true I made mistakes. Like the time I snared a badger andI stupidly sought help from a neighbour who brought along his shotgun. But to my horror, instead of promptly dispatching the terrified animal, he decided not to “waste the cartridge” and he proceeded to bludgeon the unfortunate creature with an ash plant until it was a still bloody pulp. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been all that surprised as that neighbour had once virtually starved to death two horses he was grudgingly agisting for a city relative. I remember being mortified about my role in the badger’s demise. Badgers were shy innocuous nocturnal creatures. With their odd looking striped faces and hairy coats they looked like a cross between a bandicoot and a wombat. And the one I’d caught didn’t deserve such a cruel death. Another time I caught a collie, but the dog’s owner, a local farmer, was remarkably sanguine about its permanent limp.
Looking back now, almost a half a century later, I know I felt little sympathy towards foxes. They were predators who lurked beyond the proverbial Pale. I simply viewed them as a means to garnering some much needed cash. My justification for hunting them without any qualms may have been due to the fact that they “enjoyed” some sort of mythological status and perhaps they probably still do to this day. I’d grown up hearing a familiar mantra; that foxes were sly, crafty, and even capable of playing dead to fool unsuspecting prey. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog had been drilled in to us kids at school – as a method of learning the letters of the alphabet.
In the farming world, no mercy was shown to such crafty predators. Though of course, domestic animals fared little better. Stricken cows or bullocks with broken limbs were unceremoniously carted off to the local abattoir. One excruciating memory is those drowning screams of a sackful of puppies that I’d hurled into the pond at the bottom of our back field, under my mother’s curt directive. After the pitiful screams, came the rush of bubbles to the surface and then all was quiet and still again. I remember too when our dog was run over, ironically, by an ambulance which didn’t stop, and it was temporarily paralysed, no trip was made to the vet. Instead the unfortunate creature dragged itself off to the hayshed where it lay for several weeks until, finally, one day, it emerged Lazarus like; thinner but able again to get around in a more or less normal way.
In those days; in Ireland, foxes were considered to be fair game by everyone. The local hunt assembled with their excited beagles and pursued them at regular intervals every winter. And when the fox bounty was increased, even the local farmers set aside their squabbles and Sunday afternoons, in impromptu-like hunts – to tramp the countryside with their pointers and beagles and shotguns at the ready. Fox numbers soon plummeted and the rabbit population skyrocketed.
With the decline of foxes, our hens could rest easy at night but rabbits in their hundreds were now literally competing with our cattle for grass. During one particularly harsh winter, when January snow stayed on the ground for weeks, a fox came calling one morning and killed several of our hens. Feathers were strewn all over the haggard. My enraged father, on discovering the carnage, lay in wait inside the byre cradling his shotgun. But when the fox returned, it must have caught a whiff of my father’s scent, for it opted to cut its losses and flee long before straying into the range of its would-be executioner.
Despite their proclivity to plunder hen-houses and, occasionally to make off with new-born lambs, foxes weren’t particularly despised. For the most part they operated in a relatively co-existence with the local farmers.
They were regarded as something of a nuisance and little more; though that didn’t spare them from summary opportunistic killing by most farmers.I recall another neighbour taking great pleasure in disposing of a family of foxes on his property. He’d lain in wait at dusk outside their den and he shot the family of three cubs and their parents one by one as they’d emerged.
I remember longing for the day when I’d be old enough to get my gun licence. Fishing wasn’t enough. I imagined heading off on Sunday afternoons in winter with my father hunting pheasants or waiting on the edge of the lake in pre-dawn to shoot ducks. But by the time I was of age, my interest had ebbed. I’d grown distant from my father and I resented his fierce uncompromising ways. Instead I immersed myself into a world of comics and books and, later, spirituality. My dropping out of the seminary after a few unhappy years disappointed my parents. There were few honours greater for many families than to see a son ordained. But I wasn’t to deliver them that privilege. And then a year later, my alienation from my family was completed when I decided to emigrate.
I now call Tasmania home.The similarities between the Irish and Tasmanian landscapes are uncanny. Though,of course, Tasmania’s fauna is arguably more diverse and exotic and the landscape more astoundingly beautiful. From its dazzling array of marsupials to the wondrous wedge-tailed eagle to the deadly tiger snake, Tasmania triumphs the Emerald Isle by a proverbial country mile. But after arriving here I was surprised to discover that, unlike mainland Australia,Tasmania is apparently fox-free. Apparently being the operative word. Like some other issues in Tasmania, the presence or otherwise of foxes continues to be a never ending controversial one.Still fox-free, some people would have you believe thanks to the concerted campaign of baiting. Approximately $38 million has been spent over the last decade or so eradicating the presence or otherwise of foxes. In an otherwise cash-strapped state, it seems there is no shortage of funds available to keep the Island free of foxes.
It’s difficult to fathom how foxes are relatively visible in the Northern hemisphere but yet assume a phantom like status in Tasmania. In many European countries, foxes have set up homes in urban areas. YouTube abounds with footage of foxes scavenging for food in all sorts of locations. Inner-city chooks all over the mainland’s urban areas are frequently taken by foxes. If they are not difficult to spot in most populated areas right across the mainland, why is Tasmania so different?
My daughter recently returned home from school one afternoon brandishing several pamphlets focussing on the so-called proliferation of foxes. She was excited. We had work to do she excitedly informed me. There’d been a sighting of a fox at nearby Woodbridge about 50kms south of Hobart. A toll free number featured prominently on one of the pamphlets -the hotline to call and report any fox sighting. My daughter has stuck this number to our fridge door. The pamphlets are part of the State government’s campaign to eradicate or at least to keep Tasmania fox free. The fear of foxes gaining a toe-hold on this island is being taken seriously.
Though the evidence that foxes are actually on the Island is far less compelling.
Like the intractable logging versus forestry conservation head-butting, debate about the actual presence or otherwise of foxes is showing no signs of abating. Widespread dismay and anger about the collateral death of marsupials from the 1080 poison is understandable. To date, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has positively sighted a live fox. Some would even go as far to argue that there are more sightings of the extinct Tasmanian tiger than the fox.
As I recall, foxes in Ireland were never difficult to spot. Foxes get hungry, and they don’t always restrict their hunting forays until after dark. So why would they be so invisible – if they are here at all? It suggests, I would argue that the presence or otherwise of foxes or more specifically the threat of the fox has assumed a metaphorical status. The fox must represent some kind of an outside threat. Like an unwelcome mainlander, any suggestion of it gaining a toe-hold must be resisted irrespective of the cost involved. Would foxes wreak havoc on Tasmania’s marsupials? Absolutely. But is the widespread baiting justified? Hardly if the “evidence” remains a carcasses or two and a few “fox scats” of indeterminate origin.