The end of the year or the beginning of the next one is the time to linger through the late afternoon into the dusk if you like foxes.
It’s mating season for foxes and it has its anthem, the vixen’s wailing scream with the very breath of the mountain night in it.
Half an hour ago, such an anthem wailed from the trees, echoed back from the corrie rocks.
Does she hear a rival scream?
Or does she understand the echo’s trickery, and perhaps she knows her mountain heartland so well she chooses where to scream so that the echoing rock hears and throws it back to her?
What began as light shower of new snow now began to thicken, dragged curtains across corrie walls, visibility dwindled to 50 murky yards.
The path by the burn was clear enough but its tracks of man and fox would soon disappear.
I wondered: could this be the same fox whose mastery of her mountain world was told in the snow earlier in the afternoon?
This is my kind of mountaineering.
My interest in climbing a mountain in order to pronounce it climbed has long since waned.
Now I climb with a particular purpose in a particular part of the mountain.
In that regard at least, I climb the mountain the way the fox does.
The fox had been found, for now
The fox in question had been targeted by two ravens that objected to her presence.
Soon enough, they will nest on the corrie headwall.
Clearly they had already done some repair on last year’s nest, and the fox had been much too near it for their comfort, so they set about discouraging her, flying at her head where she lay watching them.
Their dives bottomed out a few inches above where the fox’s head had been seconds before.
Then they curved up, flipped over and dived again, but now the fox met them standing on her hindlegs with jaws wide.
This was not in the ravens’ script.
They climbed again, split about 50 yards apart and homed in on the fox from two different directions.
But by then there was no fox.
I wondered if she might still be there in the blackness of the rock itself, hearing me and smelling my scent, having long since learned the trick of rock-stillness, rock-silence.”
Neither they nor I had seen it move.
The ravens perched.
We suffered the same state of confusion.
It did not surprise me that I couldn’t see the fox from where I was but I was surprised that the ravens couldn’t.
But a fox shares with a wolf that old trick by which if it doesn’t want to be seen you don’t see it.
The ravens departed in silence.
The mountain held the secret of the fox’s disappearance in silence.
Would I succeed where the ravens failed?
I wondered if tracks in the snow might explain what had happened, so I climbed to the ledge where I had last seen the fox.
When I reached it I found I could walk straight on to it from the open mountainside.
The snow had piled up against its outer edge and thanks to an overhang it was much shallower along the inner edge against a low cliff.
There was no mistaking the place where the fox had been lying up, for there was a clear depression in the snow the full length of its body.
Beyond that its footprints were everywhere on the ledge, but none of them left the ledge in either direction, and it had certainly not gone straight down.
That only left the rock face.
Behind the ledge and beneath the overhang, there was something like a small cave about two feet high.
I am committed to the idea that all wild animals should confront me from time to time with mysteries, so that I might embellish my admiration for them.”
There was no way of knowing how deeply it penetrated the rock, or whether it opened again at the back onto the mountain.
At the very least, it enabled the fox to vanish.
I even wondered if she might still be there in the blackness of the rock itself, hearing me and smelling my scent, having long since learned the trick of rock-stillness, rock-silence.
No sight of a fox, but a fox was there
I suspect the nature of this particular mountainside had nurtured generations of foxes that passed down the secret ways through the insides of the big rocks and rock faces, arteries of refuge and escape for a fox that doesn’t always want to be seen.
I scoured the mountainside, found nothing, descended via the path by the burn.
On the lowest stretch almost back in the trees, I discovered that a fox had used the path too, and the tracks were clear in the new snow.
So this fox was just ahead of me, which was when I started wondering if this was the same fox, and if so, how had it got below me without me seeing it?
I didn’t waste time trying to work that one out because there is no way of knowing.
But I am committed to the idea that all wild animals should confront me from time to time with mysteries, so that I might embellish my admiration for them.
And that’s why now is the time to linger through the late afternoon and into the dusk if you like foxes.