This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
When the vixen stole out into the grass, the pale moon was brightening in the southern sky, and a solitary star glimmered faintly above the tree-tops. A thrush sang his vesper from the bare branch of an oak near by, and a blackbird, startled by the sight of a strange form squatting beside the brambles, sounded his shrill alarm and dipped across the clearing towards a clump of blackthorn bushes. As soon as she heard the blackbird's warning, the vixen vanished; but, presently reappearing, she trotted across the open space and sat beneath the thorns. For some minutes she remained motionless in the dark patch of shadow, listening intently; then, passing slowly down a narrow path, she reached a trickling streamlet that fell with constant music from stone to stone between luxuriant masses of moss and lichen; and there, at a gravelly pool among the boulders, she cautiously stooped to drink. With exceeding care, she now proceeded to make a thorough inspection of the covert. The night was so calm and bright that the rabbits were feeding everywhere on the margin of the thickets, but the vixen passed them by with nothing but a casual glance ; her mind, for the present, was not concerned with hunting. After skirting the covert, she turned homewards by a pathway through the trees.
At the end of the path she paused, with head bent low and hackles ruffled along the spine—the scent of another vixen lay fresh on the ground. The peculiar taint told her a complete story. The strange vixen was soon to become a mother, and probably, in anticipation of the event, inhabited an " earth" close by. Casting about like an experienced hound, she picked up the trail, and followed it into a great tangle of heather, brambles, and fern, where the scent led, by many a devious turn, to the spreading roots of a beech, beneath which a disused rabbit warren had been prepared for the little strangers presently to be brought into the world. The dwelling place was empty.
Retracing her steps as far as the spot where first she had struck the trail, then turning sharply towards the clearing, the crafty creature hastened back to the " earth," determined to remove her cubs without delay to the newly discovered abode. One by one she bore her offspring thither, hold ing them gently by the loose skin about their necks, and housed them all before the dispossessed tenant returned from a slow and wearisome night's hunting. The evicted vixen, seeking to enter her home, speedily recognised that in her distressed condition she was no match for her savage, active enemy, and so, reluctantly retiring, took up her quarters in the artificial "earth".
Henceforth, through all the careless hours of infancy, till summer ended and the nights gradually lengthened towards the time of the Hunter's Moon, the stillness of the woodlands was never broken by the ominous note of the horn, or by the dread, fascinating music of the hounds in full cry. Three of the cubs grew stout and strong, but the fourth was a weakling—whether from injury at the hands of the huntsman or from some natural ailment was not to be determined. He died, and mysteriously disappeared, on the very day when the rest of the cubs first opened their eyes in the dim chamber among the roots of the beech.
Vulp was the only male member of the happy woodland family. His indulgent sisters tolerated his bouncing, familiar manners as if they were born to be his playthings— he was so serious and yet so droll, so stupidly self-assertive and yet so irresistibly affectionate! He seemed to take his pleasures sadly, wearing, if such be possible to a fox, an air of melancholy disdain; and yet his beady eyes were ever on the look-out for mischief, and for the chance of a helter-skelter romp with his sisters round and round the chamber, or to the entrance of the "earth," where the sprouts of the green grass and the flowers of the golden celandine sparkled as the sunlight of the fresh spring morning flickered between the trees.
As yet, Vulp was unacquainted with the wide, free world. It seemed very wonderful and awe-inspiring, as he sat by the mouth of the tunnel in the shadow of an arching spray of polypody and, for sheer lack of something better to do, half lifted himself on his hind-legs to rub his lips against the edge of a fern, or to peep, with a feeling that his whereabouts were a secret, between the drooping fronds. His mother restrained his rashness; once, when he actually thrust his head beyond the ferns, she with a stern admonition warned him of his mistake; and he promptly withdrew to her side, frightened at his own boldness, but grunting in well assumed defiance of the imagined danger from which he had fled.
This, in fact, was the first lesson learned —that a certain sign from the vixen meant "No," and that disobedience was afterwards punishable according to the unwritten laws of woodland life. Another sign that he learned to obey meant " Come." It was a low, deep note, gentle and persuasive; and directly Vulp heard it he would hasten to his mother to be not only fed but also cleansed from every particle of dirt. Such toilet operations were not always welcome to the youngsters, and were sometimes vigorously resented. But the vixen had a convincing method of dealing with any refractory member of her family; she would hold the cub firmly between her forefeet while she continued her treatment, or administered slight, well-judged chastisement by nipping her wayward offspring in some tender spot, where, however, little harm could be the result.
The cubs were ten days old when they opened their eyes, but more than three weeks passed before they were allowed beyond the threshold of their home. Then, one starlight night, their mother, having returned from hunting, awoke them, and, withholding their usual nourishment, gave the signal " Come." The obedient little family followed her along the dark passage, and ventured, close at her heels, into the grass-patch in the middle of the briar-brake. Vulp was slightly more timid than his sisters were; even at that early age he showed signs of independence and distrust. While the other cubs played " follow-my-leader" with the dam, he hung back, hesitating and afraid. Even an unusual show of affection by his mother failed to reassure him. A rabbit dodged quickly across a path, and immediately he stood rigid with fright. Hardly had he recovered before an owl flew slowly overhead. Enough! He paused, motionless, till the awful presence had disappeared; then darted, with astonishing speed, straight towards the "earth," and vanished, with a ridiculously feeble " yap " of make-believe bravado, into the darkness of the den. Confidence, however, came and increased as the days and the nights went by, till, at the close of a week's experiences, Vulp was as bold in danger as either of his playmates. He learned to trust his mother implicitly, and, in her absence, became the guardian of the family when some fancied alarm brought fear. He was always last in learning his lessons; but, as if to make amends, he always profited most by the teaching.
Happy, indeed, were those hours of innocence—filled with sleep, and love, and play. Till Vulp was six weeks old, he was wholly unconscious of that ravenous hunger for flesh which was fated to make him the scourge of the woodlands. Nevertheless, his instincts were slowly developing, and so, when on a second occasion the old buck rabbit that had frightened him in the thicket bolted before his eyes across the path, the little fox bristled with rage and, but for his mother's presence, would doubtless have tried to pursue the exasperating coney. Invariably, when the night was fine, the cubs gambolled about the vixen on the close-cropped sward beyond the den, climbing over her body, pinching her ears, growling and grunting, tugging at each other's brushes, and in general behaving just as healthy, happy fox-cubs might be expected to behave ; while the patient, careful mother looked on approvingly—save when, uniting in one strong effort, they endeavoured to disjoint her tail by pulling it over her back —and smiled, as only a fox can smile, with eyes asquint and a single out-turned fang showing white beside the half-closed lip.
A great event occurred when the mother first brought home her prey that she might educate her youngsters in the matter of appetite and prepare them for an independent existence. The victim was an almost full-grown rabbit. Laying it down close to the entrance of the " earth," the vixen called her cubs, and instantly they rushed from the den, tumbling over each other in their haste, till they gained the spot where she was waiting. At that moment, however, they caught sight of the strange grey object in the grass, and, leaping back, bolted round to their mother's side. Then, feeling safe under her care, they cautiously advanced in a row to sniff the rabbit, and wondered, yet instinctively guessed, at the meaning of the situation. The vixen growled, and, picking up her prey, carried it to the bramble-clump. The cubs followed, making all sorts of curious noises in mimicking their dam, and evincing the utmost inquisitiveness as to the reason of her unexpected conduct. Presently, having succeeded in arousing their inborn passion for flesh, the vixen resorted to a neighbouring mound, and left her offspring in possession of the dead animal, on which they immediately pounced, tooth and nail. How terribly in earnest they became, how bold and reckless in their vain attempt to demolish the subject of their wrath ! Vulp fastened his needle-like teeth in the throat, and each of his sisters gripped a leg, while together they jerked, strained, scolded, and threatened, till the mother, fearing lest the commotion would betray their whereabouts to some lurking foe, rated her noisy progeny and in anger drove them away. But as soon as she had gone back to her seat among the grass-bents, the youngsters returned to their work. Anyhow, anywhere, they hurled themselves on the dead creature, sometimes biting each other for sheer lack of knowing exactly what else they should bite, and sometimes simply for the excitement of a family squabble.
At last, their unwonted exertions began to tire them; then the careful vixen, desirous of bringing the lesson to its close, " broke up " her prey and divided it among her hungry children. They fed daintily, choosing from each portion no more than a morsel, and soon afterwards, exhausted by excitement and fatigue, and forgetful of their differences, were fast asleep, huddled together as usual in the roomy recess of the den. For a while the vixen remained to satisfy her hunger; then, having buried a few tit-bits of her provender, she also retired to rest; and silence brooded over the woodlands till the break of day set every nesting bird atune.
The vixen proved to be an untiring teacher, and the education of the cubs occupied a part, at least, of every night. The young foxes were growing rapidly, and accompanied their dam in her wanderings about the thickets. She never went far afield, food being easily procured at that time of year, particularly as in a certain spot additional supplies for the larder were frequently forthcoming because of the vigilance of the huntsman, whose one desire was to fit the cubs to match his hounds in the first "runs" of the coming season.