A Fox Wanders By

We often see lone foxes drifting across this landscape, following familiar trails; ours is a large site situated in a valley, bounded by a wood on its western side. At the head of the valley there is a golf course and beyond that fields, stretching off towards Ditchling Beacon. And we’re happy for fox to take on the role of pest control. One of our neighbours further down the valley told us about a fox family living under an old shed on the plot bordering theirs. They didn’t have any problems with rats in their compost bins. Fox is welcome.

Yesterday was different; three foxes. The first, a dog fox, disturbed while collecting wood chip to cover paths; the second, a vixen, encountered while filling the kettle for tea; and the third, another vixen, sitting by the gate at the top of our plot. We’d walked up to the back of the plot to get bags of seaweed for the potato beds. Fox was sitting by the gate, watching; only when we got too close did she turn away along the top path.

Fox wanders through our lives, elusive, disruptive, its classification problematic. Although its behaviour patterns and anatomical features identify fox as a member of the family Canidae, it also shares several features with cats, creating difficulties for the naturalist, the red fox’s long, very thin canine teeth and its ventrally slit pupils with their well developed tapetum lucidum are extremely obvious cat-like features. […] One other cat-like behavior, though, that is not so easily explained is the lateral threat display used by foxes in aggressive displays (stand sideways, back arched, fur erect etc). This very classic “cat pose” seems out of place in the behavioral display of a canine. David J. Henry suggests that fox’s fluid nature can be accounted for in evolutionary terms.

This ambiguity, that vexes scientific certainty, is also central to the fictional fox. The European tradition begins in antiquity via writings of natural history by the Elder Pliny, Aristotle, and Claudius Aelianus, and through writers of comedies such as Aristophanes, or historians like Herodotus (Uther, 2006: 134). For Martin Wallen, the problem begins with Aristotle:
For a systematic observer like Aristotle, an animal that conceals itself from plain view is wicked, since it represents the limit beyond which empirical observation cannot reach. […] The identification of the fox as wicked and belonging to some primordial chthonic order reverberates throughout descriptions and stories of all centuries and cultures (Wallen, 2006: 11-12).

A creature of the earth, fox is associated with primordial chthonic forces. Aesop’s fables developed and focused these powers into fox’s defining characteristics: intelligence and cunning, it’s ability to work outside the norms of society. Early Christian and Medieval thought condemned fox’s fluid nature, associating it with the Devil; an association transmitted in part, through Bestiaries, allegorical texts that articulated a world view with God at its centre. These often lavishly illustrated books, attributing moral and symbolic qualities to animals, exerted a profound influence on Medieval art and literature. The Physiologus stands at the beginning of this tradition. As Hans-Jorg Uther points out: The equation fox = heretic, as it is transmitted through the Physiologus (a work of the fourth century CE), for example, has had a particularly long term effect.

But, then there is Reynard, who, for almost 800 years […] provided a distinct mythos for literature, drama and ecclesiastical allegory depending on whether the poet, scribe or woodcarver saw the fox as entertainer or as allegory of Satan (Wollen, 2006: 52). Reynard’s subtle nature has proved extremely durable, but the negative associations persist, the crude equation still has currency, the heretic still a disruptive anti social element, a creature to be hunted.
The relationship is curious; wild creature, adversary, vermin, a pest to be controlled, not exterminated. Intimately enmeshed in the rural economy, fox is managed & bred to maintain its presence for the hunt. Viewed through this lens, it’s not too difficult to imagine the significance of the ritual role attributed to fox hunting, by the ‘custodians of the countryside’, in symbolically maintaining the social hierarchy of the rural environment. And when the hunting lobby points out that hounds, not humans, kill foxes, they deny the obvious, humans train fox hounds to pursue and kill foxes.

So, fox remains an outsider, populating our imagination as much as the environment we often share with it. It therefore seems fitting that fox should be a welcome transient, drifting across an allotment landscape characterised as marginal, under the constant threat of development.

Craven Vale (Jane’s Plot)

This is the 3rd. in our series of short films about Craven Vale allotment site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK.
We continue our exploration of the value of these green spaces, in a densely populated urban environment, in the context of the ongoing threat posed by potential development for housing.

 

 

Craven Vale (the carers plot)

This is the 2nd. in our series of short films about Craven Vale allotment site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK. This allotment site is currently included in Brighton council’s urban fringe assessment, as potential development land.

We spoke to Sara Padhair-Tutton, who started the carers plot, and Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour and Cooperative group on Brighton and Hove council, about the value of allotments and green spaces in a densely peopled environment.

Craven Vale

We are making a series of short films, over the seasons, about Craven Vale Allotment Site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK. The site has been identified, in the Urban Fringe Assessment for Brighton’s City Plan, as potential development land for housing. Nationally, councils have been directed by central government to produce a City Plan. Without a plan which sets out local councils’ development priorities, the decisions on what gets built where, will be taken by central governent without any proper reference to local need and desires. So, this assessment is essential, but, in Brighton, it’s been poorly researched, and with minimal consultation, to date.

These films will capture peoples’ stories of growing, and the value they attach to green spaces on the urban fringe.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

A dead fox, urban sheep, countryside cowboys

Sheepcote valley

Just back from a brilliant ramble around Sheepcote Valley on the eastern edges of Brighton, an area of chalk downland now undergoing conservation grazing by a flock of ‘urban’ sheep. As we moved down from the ridge into the valley, Paul the ranger almost stumbled over the corpse of a fox, a young male about one or two years old; dead for at least a couple of weeks, it had until recently been covered by snow. He mentioned having heard about a likely lamping expedition 2 or 3 weeks ago, just before the snow fell across the Downs, and only the 2nd such incident in the Valley he knew of in the last 2/3 years.  He turned over the corpse with his feet to check on possible causes of death, saw a large hole in its side, most likely from a rifle shot.

Lamping
Lamping is a method of night hunting using off-road vehicles with high-powered spotlights, that uses the eyeshine of animals to identify and target them. Spotlights are used because of the tendency for many animals, such as foxes and rabbits, to stare into the light rather than run away, as they would from humans. They are immobilised by the light and are then shot. Importantly, In Britain, while lamping foxes using dogs is now illegal, lamping then shooting is legal. However, no-one can kill a badger in Britain without a licence.

dead fox

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) publish a code of practice for lamping specifically as pest control, carried out with a landowner’s consent:
The night shooting of foxes and ground game is necessary to ensure that damage to game, wildlife, livestock and growing crops is kept at acceptable levels. It is a safe and effective method of control.[…] There are no specific legal restrictions on the night shooting of foxes. Authorised persons may legally carry out this form of fox control. Ensure you comply with previous guidance in this code.

But we also have The Hunting Life, that describes an essentially illegal activity: Lamping with lurchers at night can provide fast action and really get the heart racing […] Lamping with air guns and high-powered rifles at night can be lethal for pest and predator control at longer ranges, and provides great sport for the hunter.

in 2004, a boy of 13 was shot dead in a lamping incident near Totnes, Devon. Subsequently, an investigation by The Independent indicated its widespread illegal use and persecution of wildlife, from blasting at rabbits and hares, more organised deer poaching, to persecution of badgers. The RSPCA described illegal lampers as ‘thugs of the countryside’ and a redneck culture across Britain of people going out into the countryside ‘blasting at anything that moves’. At the 2004 Liberal Democrat conference, a member of a Montgomeryshire hunt explained how lamping was leading to a new type of ‘countryside cowboy’.

Scientific evidence suggests that the fox is not a mass killer, as popularly described, but has an important role to play in countryside ecology, and that fox populations self-regulate without the need for human intervention.

Sheepcote valley lies below the racecourse, on the eastern edge of Brighton, now included in the South Downs National Park, but very much on the urban fringe. It is public land, not private, and anyone taking part in a lamping expedition would have been doing so illegally, Sussex ‘cowboys’ with rifles.

2012: growing food in difficult circumstances

I’ve been leafing through my allotment diary, reflecting on how difficult growing food has been, thinking about the key issues of the year, some about battles with weather, others more overtly political:

January
In January we experimented with potato recipes, mainly pastry because Denis has a gluten allergy, & we discovered a delicious potato pastry using non-wheat flour. We also had an excellent supply of main crop potatoes from 2011 stored in our shed for use during winter. So, plenty of tubers to experiment with.

February
February was raw with cold, along with much discussion over access to seed & to land for growing.

This month tested the cold hardiness of our over wintering crops. Snow & frost rendered the soil hard & impenetrable. Yet, the kales were remarkable; I used to leave them to get very large because that’s what I thought you did with them, but learnt the hard way during winter 2010 that large leaves also disintegrate into smelly mush when there’s a freeze. Now I crop the plants as soon as they produce large enough leaves to eat, plant them closer together, so have more for cropping more regularly. I added pictures of the various varieties, with commentary, to my post on kales, useful now I’m planning the varieties to sow in 2013.

February also marks the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the time chosen for Brighton’s Seedy Sunday, an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. This gathering was marked by anger & concern over a threatened allotment rent rise that broke apart the superficially apolitical world of allotment gardening. A petition circulated, with much lobbying & planning in the background. The failure of the Allotment Federation to do anything to either inform or protect allotment holders from what was judged a predatory raid by the council on allotment rents as easy revenue, was also seen as a double betrayal by the 1st Green council in England. Continue reading

A Boon for Illegal Timber Use and Increased Soil Sealing

I recommend reading this post from @european trees; it raises the likelihood that the proposed removal of planning control will further damage our already compromised landscape. We may yet find our gardens, forests & ferociously defended green belt sacrificed to the profits of property developers & others.

europeantrees

The UK government are to relax planning rules for a ‘limited period’ in order to ‘boost the economy’.

Revitalising the Georgian suburban dream ties in very nicely with the Georgian economic mind of Chancellor George and maybe it is the greater emphasis of the ‘Great’ in Great Britain in a year it can celebrate itself due to the Olympics that has so easily persuaded the government that the UK is actually in competition with the rest of the world and building a Jerusalem to the exacting standards of Margot Leadbetter is what is needed.

In following the desperate bletherings of a thinktank employee, who has been put on the spot without reference material, these planning proposals further diminishes a flagging respect for what was ‘Great’ in Great Britain – reasoned intelligent progressive innovative thinking – based on scientific or academic research.

Total ignorance of any signed treaties or conventions…

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