“Fantastic Mr Fox”
“He can leap over an 8ft wall like a gymnast or squeeze through a tiny gap in a trellis fence. Dan Pearson on how to outwit the wily urban pest…
Shortly before departing on my September holiday I entered into a small war with the foxes. They have always been in and out of the garden and I know where the den is, several doors up the road. It is within the roots of an old conifer, a mass of entrances and exits in a garden that is dominated by their dusty tracks and bawdy behaviour. We have gone through 10 generations in the 10 years I have been here and got to know their habits, which from year to year vary according to the number of cubs that survive or decide to stay the summer within this area.
This has been my toughest year in terms of fox activity, made so by a particularly lively group of cubs that took it upon themselves to make my garden their playground. I have been woken by their dancing up and down the broken-slate path at dawn and by their bone-chilling, childlike screams. I have also watched them running helter-skelter around my pots, in, out and over the box hedge and deep into the borders with total disregard for my precious plants. Lobbing an old shoe from my bedroom window is usually enough to temporarily scare them off, but they treat this as a game, too, and return soon after I have slipped back into sleep.
I have tolerated the neat run they had made across the vegetable beds, the sunbathing in the stipas and the musky, foxy scent. I have also put up with the odd spate of wanton vandalism. I went down one morning to find all the hemerocallis buds nipped off alongside the chair on the deck. A cub had obviously been using the chair, and I could imagine exactly how it had lain there nonchalantly snapping at the plump buds and casting them on the decking. The problem was resolved by moving the chair, but things worsened shortly before I went away, with dog foxes leaving telltale ‘gifts’ in very prominent and premeditated places. A fetid turd appeared first directly in front of the cat flap, then at the back door and then at the top of the steps into the garden. These offerings were signs that they were marking their territory, but one day I noticed light beneath the fence.
It had been years since they had burrowed between gardens, as the last few generations had been content to hop up on to the wall in an effortless exit, so I plugged the hole with a large log. Though there is little that one can do in reality to control the urban fox, one thing I have learned is that you need to break their habits before they start to adopt space and discourage digging immediately. Holes under fences can quickly lead to burrows if they start to feel settled. I started to patrol my boundaries to check for holes and several times found the log, or whatever obstacle I had inserted, cast aside like a plaything. Each time the hole got larger, and it went on like this for a month until it was the last thing I was doing just minutes before having to leave for the airport. On this occasion the dirt they had thrown up was strewn over my propagation area, the pots toppled and covered in fox-smelling dirt. It was a moment of high anxiety. What would I return to a fortnight later?
On returning, I gingerly set out into the garden. No more holes had appeared, but they had obviously been partying. There were fish-and-chip wrappers under the box hedge, animal bones on the terrace and three different trainers (not mine), one complete with a dirty sock. I wondered if they were trying to tell me something, but worst of all were the full nappies, several of them strewn about the beds and in different stages of being pulled apart for the contents. There were nests, too, that had been made under the hydrangea and runs through the beds, the Eucomis had been toppled, and several of the newly emerging spikes on the nerine had been snapped off and spat out. I have a soft spot for wildlife and like to see my garden as a haven, but at this point my blood was boiling.
In terms of control, foxes’ stealth, intelligence and nimble light-footedness will outwit you every time, and barricades are as good as useless. You only have to see them leap over an 8ft wall like a gymnast, squeeze their dog-like frame through the tiny openings in trellises or witness what they can do to an irrigation system to know that the city is now their domain. The population of foxes is now so dense in urban centres that trapping them is discouraged since the territory will immediately be filled, and relocated foxes have problems re-establishing new territories. They get used to sonic devices, and in my experience lion dung (yes, I have tried Silent Roar and products with names like Get Off my Garden!) has zero effect.
I cannot give you a satisfactory solution other than to always clear up after them and discourage them from feeling like your garden is home. Never feed or encourage them. Using bone meal and other fertilisers which smell like food encourages them to dig in the belief that they will find a meal. Using plants that are tough enough to survive their games is the advice of the RHS, but I think you have to get into the mind-set of dealing with a naughty child, to outwit and to keep your cool. Plants have a way of coming back, and the fox has a short attention span.
City gardening or country gardening both have their problems, but just because an unwelcome guest might be present doesn’t mean that you have to set yourself a warring agenda. I lived with deer as a child, which have the most impeccable taste and invariably go for the rosebud at its most delectable moment or your most treasured, irreplaceable plant. We couldn’t possibly have fenced our woodland garden (an effective deer fence is 8ft high or electrified in extreme cases), but we kept them at bay with string and well-placed rags dipped in creosote. They are also reputed to hate the smell of human hair, and a friend says that leaving out a sweaty T-shirt once a week in the vegetable patch is just as effective.
I have also lived with rabbits, and in the end the most sensible course of action is to decide upon a pest-free zone in which you have the treasures and then to fence out the problem if you can afford to. A rabbit-proof fence need only be 4ft high, the gauge no more than 1in. There is no need to dig the wire into the ground, as some advice might suggest – the secret is to fold a foot of the wire outwards just under the ground. The rabbits will dig at the base of the fence and quickly stop where they cannot make headway.
Out in the open, rabbit tree guards (taller for deer) are essential in areas where they are present, but both are most interested in young plants, and after three years the guards can be removed. The RHS (www.rhs.org.uk) also provides extensive lists of plants that deer and rabbits favour less, such as hellebore, Cornus sanguinea and aster, and you can garden quite extensively if you give young plants initial protection. In one garden where it is impossible to keep the rabbits out, we have a stack of wire hanging baskets. These are upturned and placed over the crowns of new perennials and those that are prone to attack early in the season, and this is enough to bring them through the vulnerable periods. As usual, prevention is better than cure.”