A long time ago, back in the days of folk, a fox went out on a chilly night with the express intention of greasing his chin on a farmer's goose. The fox duly succeeded and the farmer and his wife were mighty miffed. Some centuries later a particularly fantastic Mr Fox made three farmers' lives an utter misery with his thieving antics. It seems the relationship between fox and farmer was destined to be a rocky one.
Orphaned Fox Cubs
On our farm things are a little different. Over the past few years we have taken in over a dozen orphaned fox cubs and released many of them onto the farm as healthy young adults. Consequently, we have a thriving population of the beasts and nothing makes us happier than seeing one of these vicious, sly, wanton killers trotting merrily through our meadows. Needless to say the local hunt love our land yet they must yearn from afar because, when it comes to foxes, our land is Switzerland.
So why do we love foxes so much?
However, we are not overly emotional farmers and we do have sound practical reasons for encouraging a healthy fox population. We don't consider our reasoning strange in any way and you don't need to be an ecologist to understand why.
At the moment (and for sometime now) we rear cattle and sheep in a fairly non-intensive way. This means we are principally in the business of growing grass. The more grass we grow the more cows and sheep go to market and the happier our finances become. Sheep love grass and cows love grass, so we love grass... unfortunately so do rabbits.
Like so many farms, we have a problem with Peter and his furry friends. Don't get me wrong, all forms of wildlife are welcome and desirable on the farm but here, the rabbit is a classic case of a species out of balance. The huge population booms followed by myxomatosis induced crashes indicate that the rabbit has never really found its niche in Britain since those pesky Normans first brought them over here in the 11th century.
"1 fox could give you an extra sheep a week"
Unfortunately, the reproductive powerhouse of rabbitkind is in direct competition with us; whether they're eating the grass, undermining our hedge banks, ring barking fruit trees or munching through my veg patch. In the face of this onslaught it soon became clear that the old council of persecuted vermin were our greatest allies. Stoats, weasels, buzzards, ravens, crows and badgers all chip away at the rabbits as we get on with our business. I once spotted a badger dig out and consume 3 rabbit families in the space of 20 minutes but nothing on the farm is as adept at bunny hunting as our old friend the fox.
It has been calculated that 5 rabbits consume the same amount of grass as a sheep and our observations are that a fox will eat at least 1 rabbit every other day (double that if cubs are involved). So effectively, 1 fox will give you an extra sheep a week. With each lamb currently fetching around £80 at market, Mr Fox really is offering a fantastic service.
We were greatly angered a couple of years back when an un-neighbourly neighbour of ours inadvertently tested our reasoning. This semi-industrial dairy farmer thought that foxes were killing his cows. I know, sounds ridiculous but there you go.
Anyway, as he had no foxes on his ecology-free green desert of a farm, he had a shooter call all the foxes off our land with one of those distressed rabbit whistles and then shot them at the boundary. I can still feel the rage rising up just writing about it!
As far as our neighbour was concerned it was a great success. The proof being that no half tonne dairy cattle were killed by 7 kilo foxes that year. I imagine he also attributes his lack of tractor tyre punctures to the removal of a wasp nest in his yard.
A Population Explosion
Meanwhile, back on our side the rabbits went wild. Entire field margins were stripped to the earth and then they moved into the middle. Our hedge banks became so riddled with tunnels and holes that some actually collapsed. We are still struggling with the knock on effect of increased liver-fluke in our stock as the rabbits acted as a reservoir and breeding ground for that nasty little parasite. The rabbit population reached such a density that the inevitable myxomatosis eventually swept through them like a virus with a scythe. Not pleasant to watch and wholly unnecessary.
Two years on and our fox population is starting to return and keep the rabbits in check once again. I don't know how much that night of fox hunting cost us in financial terms but you can bet our neighbour won't be offering up his wallet in compensation.
Fox Repellent for Poultry Farming
Now I'm not naïve about foxes, they too can be a predatory pest but on balance for us they are most definitely a force for good. Yes, they can take a young lamb (particularly if a ewe is preoccupied with a twin) but with a bit of vigilance at lambing time, it has been over a decade since that has happened here. In the future, it is our intention to introduce pastured poultry to the farm and certainly this will be more of a challenge. However, there are many things to try without resorting to the rifle -
There are turkey farmers who train dogs to guard the flock; portable electric fencing is used to keep out coyotes in the States; I know of one smallholder who swears by scent marking his territory on his morning walk. If necessary, I'm not averse to shooting a rabbit each day and leaving it as an offering to keep the fox happy and fed or if that doesn't work why not train the fox.
An old country method took advantage of a foxes predictable nature. If El Zorro has raided your chicken coup and killed more than one bird you can guarantee he'll be back for the bodies. In the old days the trick was to liberally coat the dead chicken/s with mustard powder and the fox soon learns that he doesn't like chicken anymore. As a more modern alternative I believe Tabasco sauce is meant to be particularly effective.
The fox went out on a chilli night perhaps? Certainly one taste of my chicken fajitas and he'll be back on rabbits in no time.
Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green made the BBC2 film, 'A Farm For a Future' which explored peak oil and climate change in relation to farming. Whilst researching, they discovered permaculture and decided to return to the small mixed farm that Rebecca grew up on in Devon, help with day to day tasks and experiment with some cutting edge ideas and techniques.