Authors: Tom McCaughren
To my wife Fran, for her patience during those seemingly pointless family forays into the wild and the weeds on cold winter days, but above all, for the unflagging faith which she came to have in ‘the foxes’; to my daughters Samantha and Simone, who as children braved the cold with us and who, by their curiosity and enthusiasm, encouraged me in a way that only children can; and to my daughters, Michelle and Amanda, who helped me in various other ways.
nce upon a time in the valley of Glensinna, not far from Dublin, there lived a fox. His name was Black Tip.
In all of Glensinna, and it’s a valley of some considerable size, there was no other fox with a black tip on its tail.
It is most unusual, of course, for a fox anywhere to have a black tip, but more so in Glensinna. For the valley gets its name from the Gaelic, Gleann an tSionnaigh Bháin, which means, the Valley of the White Fox.
It was Vickey, an attractive vixen, who had told the young fox he should be very proud of his black tip.
‘Your father was right,’ she had said. ‘It does look very handsome.’
She had reflected for a moment before adding: ‘And if it hadn’t made you into a strong fighter, that might be you
lying down there in the hollow.’
It was also Vickey who had set Fang and Black Tip thinking about the Great White Fox and the secret of Sinna.
‘Man is our enemy, not each other,’ she had told them.’ We just can’t win against him any more — we’ve forgotten how, even here.’
It was during a particularly hard winter that Black Tip first met Vickey.
cold east wind blew in across the meadows, stirring the clumps of withered grass that rose above the patches of crisp snow. It whistled through the leafless trees at the top of the rise and ruffled the feathers of a rook that still preferred the top-most branches to a more friendly perch farther down. In the hedgerow beneath, a single robin bared his red breast to the wind for a moment before turning tail and hopping off about his business.
The wind curled through the dead leaves behind the hedge and around the foot of the trees, and now and then it flicked up a leaf and impaled it on a scraggy hawthorn branch or on a strand of barbed wire. For a moment a yellowhammer flitted through a clump of gorse, lending a flash
of colour to a bush that wouldn't flower more fully until the approach of Easter. Then, sensing that the gorse was already occupied, it beat a hasty retreat.
The soft belly of the young dog fox rose and fell as he lay in the undergrowth. His legs were wet and muddy, for he had travelled far, and each panted breath misted warmly for a moment before being taken away by the cold wind. There was a lean, hungry look about him, a look not accounted for by his lack of years. It had been a hard year, and it was getting harder. His black ears twitched to every sound, and the sharp, vertical pupils of his eyes missed nothing as he looked across the bleak, wintry landscape.
Above the meadow, a heron circled slowly on its big grey wings and decided there was no point in coming down to land. The stream was flowing, but under a layer of ice.
âI could have told him he was wasting his time,' thought the young fox. Not that he would have. He just felt resentful that the big bird had gone off. In fact, he wasn't really watching the meadow at all. He had been down there and he knew there was nothing in it for him. It was too cold and hard, so the snipe and the ducks hadn't come in to feed. If they didn't eat there, neither did he.
He was more interested in the house to his right. There was a stack of turf at the back, a line of washing, and a dog. There was always a dog. Not that it mattered, as the house had no hens that he could see. What held his attention was
the brightly-lit room.
A fire was burning in the grate, and a man and woman and several children were sitting around a table eating. The young fox licked his lips at the sight of the food, but it was the brightly-coloured lights flashing on and off that caught his eye. Tempting though the food was, the flashing lights stirred an even deeper instinct in his mind. Somewhere in his sub-conscious they awakened the realisation that the time of greatest danger in his year had come. He may not have understood that for humans the flashing red lights signalled peace and goodwill. He did know that for him they heralded the days when man would deal out most death to his fellow creatures.
The young fox eased himself up, and with a flick of a tail that was tipped with black, turned around and headed for the high country.
For what seemed many days, the clear frosty air echoed to the sound of gun-fire as the shooters searched out the lowlands. Above it all, Black Tip watched and listened. How was he to know that these shooters were not after foxes, but pheasants, and snipe, and ducks and rabbits? All he knew was that when they came upon a fox, they killed it. Why they did so, he had no way of knowing. The farmers would shoot at a fox if it was after their hens, and in a way he could understand
that. But what had the fox done to these people, or for that matter, to the men who set traps for it in the hedgerows?
Whatever it was, Black Tip had to use all his wits to avoid the shooters. This he did by hunting at night and sitting tight in the daytime on some high spot where he could watch them return to comb the marshes and the meadows. That way he could be long gone if they should happen to approach his hiding place.
As the days passed, something else was beginning to occupy the young fox's mind besides the primary sense of survival. The mating urge was starting to stir within him, and he longed for the company of a vixen. Yet times were hard for vixens too. Man didn't seem to care what kind of fox he killed, vixen or otherwise, and the she-foxes were now scarce.
Strangely, it was the shooters who unwittingly provided him with a mate. He was watching them striding through the meadows. There were few, if any shots, and he knew it was because there had been a heavy frost during the night. The snipe were not there, but on some distant slope where the wintry sun would release a stream from its icy grip and allow the long bills to probe the mud for worms and other food. He would love to have known the whereabouts of that slope, just as much as the shooters, but all creatures have their secrets, and today this one belonged to the snipe.
Suddenly there was a flurry of shots, as if the shooters had been surprised by something that had invited them all to
have a go. Black Tip raised his head. From his hiding place among a tangled mass of last year's growth of scutch grass and briars, he could see they had come upon another fox. Puffs of blue smoke and then sounds of shots.
The other fox zig-zagged among the rushes as it streaked away. More shots. For a moment it faltered. Was it hit? No, probably just a stumble. A parting shot as it drew out of range. Now it was coming towards him. Would it draw them on to him? He made to rise. But wait. He felt a sudden surge of excitement run through his body, and he was glad he had held his ground. This was no dog fox coming towards him. This was a vixen.
Black Tip was lying in a bramble thicket on a part of the hillside that rose out of the reach of cultivation. More brambles sprawled to his right, together with some uprooted tree-stumps where the farmer had tried to clear the land and failed. To his left a shallow stream that dribbled down the surface of the hillside seeped slowly beneath a covering of ice. Just below him was a secluded hollow. Part of it was matted with a patch of wilted reeds and the rest was covered with layers of withered grass spiked here and there with dead white stalks of hogweed. When the vixen reached the hollow, he knew she would be well out of the shooters' sight and it would be safe to approach her. Patiently he watched as she made her way up the hillside, pausing every now and then to make sure she wasn't being followed. Her progress
was slow. Eventually she made her way up over the edge of the hollow and lay panting in the long grass.
So intent was the vixen in glancing back over her shoulder at the shooters that she hadn't noticed the young dog fox. Now as she became aware of him, she was glad she had come upon one of her own, for she too had experienced a lean and difficult winter since her last cubs had matured and struck out on their own. Black Tip eased himself up and stepped out to approach her. It was only then he became aware of a movement to his right, and realised he had company. He had been so pre-occupied watching the vixen that he hadn't sensed the presence of another dog fox, and it annoyed him intensely, partly because he had been neglectful, a mistake that in other circumstances could have cost him his life. He took another step towards the vixen to show he was laying claim to her and to warn off his adversary. The other dog fox rushed forward to dispute the claim. He was a big fox, strong, probably older, and with fangs that suggested he was a fierce fighter. Black Tip turned to face him.
Below them, the vixen licked her right haunch and jerked back her head to watch as the two dogs closed and locked in a snarling ball of fury. Turning, twisting and biting, they rolled down into the hollow, cracking and flattening the brittle stalks of hogweed. Over and over they went, into the
reeds, breaking the frosted crust on the mud and mulching the half-dead leaves into a brown pulp. Black Tip felt a stinging pain in his upper lip and drew back. Furious he pounced and caught the other dog by the throat. As he did so, the other fox slipped and he hurled him to the ground and held him. How long he held him, he did not know, but he didn't release his grip until the other lay still.
Feeling tired and dirty, and with blood streaming into his mouth from his torn lip, Black Tip trotted over to the vixen and nuzzled her with his nose. She accepted his approach, and he led her up out of the hollow to where the water trickled beneath the ice. It was only then he realised the she-fox was injured. One of the shooters had found his mark after all. What they needed, he thought was, clean water. He could see it bubbling under the ice. First a big bubble would get stuck. Then it would break up into numerous smaller bubbles. Gradually these would squeeze through, and once again they would form into a bigger bubble farther on. He scratched at the bubbles with his right forepaw. The vixen lay down on the ice and tried to pick the shotgun pellets from her hip with her teeth. As he watched her, his own blood tricked from his mouth and splashed on to the ice. Then, the warm blood burned its way through the ice and mingled with the bubbles for a moment before blending with the water and disappearing. Eagerly he caught the jagged edges of the ice with his teeth and ripped it open.
The water was cold and refreshing, and it cleaned and numbed his torn lip. Having let it flow around his mouth for a moment, he got up and went over to the vixen. She was having difficulty in extracting the pellets from her skin, so he lay down beside her and searched them out with his teeth. It was important that every one of them should be located and drawn out. Otherwise she would die.
The she-fox was patient. She too knew the pellets must be removed if she was to survive. It was a painful process. The pellets stung deeply, and the probing teeth even more so as each tiny ball of lead was gripped and squeezed out. Before long, his blood and her's were mingling, first on their fur, then on the ice.
By the time all the pellets had been extracted, the combination of their blood and the heat of their bodies had melted a large patch of the ice, and they were able to roll in the cold healing waters of the stream.
When they had finished, the vixen looked at him, and having observed the black marking on his tail, said: âThank you, Black Tip. You have saved my life.'
It was a long time since anyone had called him Black Tip with such affection, and he found it very pleasing. She was a pretty fox, he thought, small and attractive. It was her amber eyes that appealed to him most of all. There was something warm about them, something that suggested she cared.
âWhat will I call you?' he asked.
âVickey,' she smiled. âI've always been called Vickey.'
It was a common fox name, and on some was quite plain, but on her it seemed most beautiful.
âCome, Vickey,' he said, âit's time we were moving on. We've been here too long already. I know a place not far from here where there's good cover. We can stay there until our wounds heal.'
Black Tip led the limping vixen up into the hillside until they came to an old quarry with overhanging rocks and a protective screen of gorse and brambles. He had often used it before and knew there was a ready-made den awaiting them beneath the rocks. The den was empty, and as they settled into it they found it warm and dry and sheltered from the wind. Black Tip's mouth had stopped bleeding now, although it was painful and had begun to swell. He eased his mouth down between his forefeet and watched Vickey stretch out her right hind leg and lick her wounded hip. Having positioned her leg in a way that gave her least pain, she turned to him. She could see the swelling at the side of his mouth. Bravely ignoring her own pain, and almost as if she was taking his mind off his, she asked: âHow come you have a black tip on your tail? It's very unusual.'