I once met a red fox at 4,000ft on the Cairngorms plateau. We rather surprised each other.
We saw each other in the same instant as we breasted a small rise. I was heading north and it was heading south. We were about 100 yards apart.
I stopped and watched. It stopped, sat back on its heels and watched.
We watched each other for perhaps half a minute, then the fox stood again, muttered a gruff monosyllable that might have meant: “Hi”. Then it resumed its journey, trotted past me 50 yards away, watching me as it passed.
I raised a hand, an admiring wave. It was a big dog fox, and in early-morning, summer sunlight, it was simply one of the wildest and most beautiful creatures I ever saw. As I walked on, I thought that it was probably safer up there than anywhere else in the land.
It came back into my mind with the news that two men had just been convicted at Selkirk Sheriff Court of killing a fox with dogs.
Hunting a wild mammal with dogs is illegal in Scotland so, of course, it happens all the time. There are a dozen hunts in Scotland, and their unofficial apologists, the Scottish Countryside Alliance, will tell you that they provide an invaluable service to farmers.
They provide nothing of the kind. What they do provide is a day out for people who like to kill wild animals, especially foxes.
Three things troubled me about the court case. The first was that the prosecution hinged largely on video filmed by the League Against Cruel Sports, rather than as the result of police upholding the law.
The second was a televised interview in which the spokesman for the SCA seemed to suggest that the convicted men were somehow victims.
The third was that while I agreed with the sheriff that the law was broken, I think the law as it stands is pursuing the wrong quarry.
The only way to end a practice that should have died out with the Victorians is to give legal protection to the red fox, and while we’re at it, we may as well outlaw the hunts.
We give the protection of the law to badgers, pine martens, red squirrels, wildcats, otters, and beavers, among others, yet we continue to treat the fox as if it was an inferior creature, somehow unworthy of nature, and that the only good fox is a dead fox.
The interesting comparison is with badgers. The estimated population of badgers in Britain is around 520,000, of which Scotland has around 25,000. The estimated population of red foxes in Britain is around 240,000, of which Scotland has around 23,000.
Yet we give legal protection throughout Britain to the badger, but we shoot foxes at will, trap them, poison them and, yes, hunt them with dogs. There is no creature in all nature that your fellow countrymen and mine treat worse than the red fox.
The thing that the SCA, the farmers’ union, the gamekeepers’ union and the landowners’ organisation won’t tell you is that killing foxes in the name of “pest control” doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because the fox is too smart. If you constantly harass foxes on a particular piece of land, two things happen. One is that unless you wipe out every single fox, they behave unpredictably in the face of harassment. If you do wipe out every fox, you create a territorial vacancy for foxes with no territory to move into.
If, on the other hand, you let the foxes be, let them take their chances with the rest of nature – in effect, let wildlife manage wildlife – it is much more likely that you will not have a problem with foxes.
It is the 21st Century. We make 21st Century laws for our towns and cities. Yet far too much of our countryside still gasps for the breath of life in the stranglehold of an ethos born under Queen Victoria.
The fox should become a symbol of a new, 21st Century approach to land use reform that honours nature’s place. We should have moved on far beyond the idea that we only will permit those species to flourish which are not too inconvenient for a regime that props up a Victorian time-warp.
Legal protection for the red fox would send out the unmissable and unambiguous message to landowners, land managers and all their staff that a new era has begun all across the Scottish landscape, one that pledges to honour nature’s cause in legislation as never before.
Oh, about the fox on the Cairngorms plateau. Shortly after we parted company I passed two men with guns. We passed the time of day. They said they planned to bag some ptarmigan. I thought it best not to mention the fox.