Stunning photography of foxes at night
PUBLISHED: 09:11 05 August 2020
Paul Hobson recalls the trials, tribulations and delights of some unexpected garden visitors
Over the past 30 years I have photographed foxes on many occasions, from the Derbyshire woods of Unstone and in my local allotments, to the wintery shores of Japan, the snow of Yellowstone and the rain-lashed shores of Alaska.
Throughout this time I have had adult foxes visiting my garden regularly but on the whole they have proved difficult to photograph. I can count on the fingers of one hand successful encounters as a single fox walked through the garden in daylight.
About five years ago the random nocturnal visits of our local badgers transformed into a regular occurrence and I set myself a project to follow their story over the years. This was accomplished using a remote flash system (to provide the light with which to photograph with) as they only ever came out in the dead of night. During this time, I sometimes noticed an adult fox on the periphery of an image but it never once came near the camera and flash. This changed during my Covid-19 lockdown.
As a football fan I always watch Match of the Day and had been enjoying the repeated matches on the BBC during lockdown. I was engrossed late one Saturday evening when I heard something bang loudly against our back door. I couldn’t imagine who would be calling at this hour and got up to investigate. During the spring to autumn period I often run a moth trap at night so much of the garden was illuminated. As I gazed out of the back door window I was flabbergasted to see two young fox cubs chasing each other around. They seemed brimming with confidence and clearly had been in the garden before. I wondered how I had missed them and immediately turned my mind to working out a project to photograph them.
The following night I sat by the back door and waited to see if the cubs would return. As I waited, I pondered just where their earth was and how they were entering my garden. At 1am they showed up and I could follow their playful antics with ease. I also worked out that they came into the garden at one corner and initially they used the paths to scamper around on. I knew where I would start my photography so on the following evening set up my camera and lens plus flash.
Even though they seemed incredibly bold I didn’t know how they would react to the camera so I opted to fire it remotely using an infra-red system. This meant I could take one shot when they were in the right position and monitor their reactions. I needn’t have worried, they didn’t bat an eyelid when the camera went off. This is not that surprising really because they must have been setting off security lights in the gardens of my neighbours so were used to bright lights suddenly popping on and off.
Throughout the past five years I have fed adult foxes and badgers when the weather conditions have been harsh, particularly during long, dry periods like those experienced during last April and May. This year was no exception so I guessed the cubs picked up on this.
Due to lockdown, I couldn’t easily chat to my neighbours to find out more but I could shout to Lee, our nearest neighbour, and he told me the earth was in the garden just beyond his and next to his mother’s. He told me there were six cubs and he often saw them in his garden late at night.
Over the next month the behaviour of the cubs slowly changed. They started to arrive in the garden earlier and earlier, until it became possible to photograph them in daylight. I started to get up at dawn and found I often saw one wandering around at any hour up to 8am.
Then the downside of having fox cubs visiting daily started to become apparent. Small holes in the flower beds started to resemble a lunar landscape. The foxes clearly had favourite holes because no matter how many times I filled them in they were dug out again deeper the following night.
They also displayed an incredibly annoying habit beyond simple destruction. I am a keen gardener and have some prized plants I have cultivated for years. I started to find flowers cleanly nipped off. The flower would be lying, complete and pristine on the soil, the stem looking as if a naughty child has snipped it with scissors. The cubs clearly had their favourites - the dwarf irises lost every flower yet plants growing next to them remained untouched. They then started to take their mini excavations to a new level by digging up a number of established plants and destroying them. One lavender was so obliterated that all I found were leaves scattered all over the lawn. Another annoying habit, but not one that bothered me too much, was their pooing. They seemed to produce copious amounts every night which they scattered all over the lawn.
The digging of holes was interesting and I thought that they might be learning to bury food. This was confirmed later when I watered a large pot of lilies, one of their favourite places to snuffle around in. As the water disturbed the compost I saw a complete chicken’s egg buried. I later learnt that a neighbour fed them copious amounts of food each night, including eggs!
At this point I researched methods that would deter them from digging holes in favourite places but wouldn’t drive them out of the garden. I wanted my cake and definitely wanted to eat it too, which meant I wanted to still have them in the garden and to photograph them.
I didn’t buy branded fox repellents and definitely didn’t want an ultrasonic deterrent. I opted for the organic solution and brewed up an incredibly heady cocktail of garlic and chilli and sprayed around their favourite mining sites. I thought after one night it might be working and in one spot they did stop digging but it had virtually no effect in the other sites. I just had to live with the consequences and knew it wouldn’t last forever as they would leave as they grew up and moved on.
So the summer lockdown was difficult in many ways but it was relieved brilliantly by the presence of our first fox cubs in twenty years. It became something of a love-hate affair but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.