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.
A dark and wind-swept night had fallen over the countryside when Reynard left the steep slope above the keeper's cottage, and stole through gorse and brambles towards the outskirts of the covert, where a narrow dingle, intersected by a noisy rill and thickly matted with brown bracken, divided the furze from some neighbouring pine-woods.
For months nothing had occurred to disturb the peace of his woodland home. Once, about a year ago, he had fled for his life before the hounds; and again, during the last autumn, while lying hidden in the ditch of the root-crop field above the pines, he had been surprised by two sheep-dogs that nipped him sorely before he could make good his escape. But at no other time had he been in evident peril, and so, though naturally cunning and suspicious, he had grown bolder, and better acquainted with the neighbourhood of cottage and farmstead than were certain members of his family living on the opposite side of the valley, among thickets hunted regularly, where guns and spaniels might be heard from early morning till close of day.
Here and there, as the fox crept stealthily among the blackthorns and the gorse-bushes, he stopped for a moment on the scent of a rabbit; but the night was not such as to induce Bunny to remain outside her cosy burrow in the bank. He examined each "creep" in the tangled clumps along his way, and sometimes, resting on his haunches, sniffed the air and listened intently for any sign to indicate the presence of a feeding coney; but even the strongest taint was "stale," and no sound could be detected that might betray the whereabouts of any creature feeding in the grass. Disappointed, the fox turned towards the uplands and crossed the hedgerow into the nearest stubble. Louping leisurely along, he surprised and killed a sleeping lark. Further on he crossed the scent of a hare, but Puss was doubtless some distance away, feeding in a quiet corner of the root-crop field. Reynard now instinctively made for the farmyard among the pines, trusting meanwhile that luck would befriend him. Across the gap, by the side of the hedgerow, and through an open gateway, he went, seeking spoil everywhere, but finding none. With all his senses alert, he climbed the low wall around the yard, peeped into the empty cart-house, and stealthily approached an open shed. There, unluckily, the dogs were sleeping on a load of hay in the furthest corner. Careful not to arouse his foes, the fox retreated, and, passing the pond at the bottom of the yard, moved silently towards another shed, in which, as he knew from a former visit, the poultry roosted. Though the door was shut, an opening for the use of the fowls seemed to afford the possibility of success. With difficulty Reynard managed to squeeze himself in, only, however, to no purpose. Just beyond the door lay a loose coil of wire, brought home by the labourers after fencing and thrown here out of the way. The fox, fearing a trap, reluctantly abandoned his project, returned to the bank by the pond, and crept down the lane to a spot where the ducks were housed in a neat shelter built in the wall. But here he found everything securely fastened. At this moment a door of the farmstead creaked loudly, the light of a lantern flooded the yard, and the baffled marauder sprang over the wall and trotted across the field towards the wood.
His pace soon slackened when he found himself free from pursuit; and before he reached the end of the meadow he had regained all his cool audacity and was busily planning a visit to the cottage at the foot of the dingle. Hardly had his thoughts turned once more to hunting when fortune favoured him. A hen from the farmyard had laid her eggs in the hedgerow bordering the wood, and was brooding over them in proud anticipation of one day leading home a healthy family, thus causing an agreeable surprise to the farmer's wife. The fox almost brushed against her as he sprang over the hedge, and she paid to the utmost the penalty of indiscretion.
After feasting royally on the eggs, the fox took up the dead bird, and moved slowly away through the trees towards his home. Re-entering the covert, he was met by a prowling vixen that, in company with her four young cubs, inhabited an "earth" not many yards away. Reckless through hunger and maddened by the scent of blood, she attacked him savagely, bullied him out of the possession of the dead fowl, and bore her prize away in triumph to her den. The fox endured his ill-treatment with the submission of a Stoic—he happened to be the pugnacious vixen's mate, and the sire of her family. Soon recovering from the chastisement, he set off, and skirted the covert as far as the cottage garden. Finding the gate of the hen-coop closed, he sprang on the water-butt, climbed to the roof of the shed, and tried to enter the coop from above; but there, as at the farm, he feared a trap, and dared not creep beneath the loose wire netting overhanging the shed. As he jumped from the coop to the wall of the stye, he caught sight of several rats scampering to their holes. Lying flat on the wall, he awaited patiently their re-appearance. At last one of them ventured out beneath the door of the cot, and was instantly killed. But, much to his chagrin, Reynard found the carcass a decidedly doubtful tit-bit, and so, having conveyed it gingerly to the margin of the covert, he scratched a shallow hole among the rotting leaves, and buried his prey, that, perhaps, its flavour might improve with keeping. Afterwards, till the sky lightened almost imperceptibly, and a steel-blue bar, low down beneath the clouds, first signalled the coming of day, he lay motionless among the undergrowth near a warren in the dingle. Then an unsuspecting rabbit hopped out into the grass, and Reynard, his watch rewarded, disappeared with his spoil into the wilderness of the gorse.
Dawn was breaking over the hills. Blue smoke curled up into the sky from the lodge cottage at the foot of the tree-clad slope. The door of the cottage stood wide open, and the scent of the wood-fire hung on the chill, damp air filling the narrow lane. A blackbird flew into the apple-tree overlooking the thatch, shook the moisture from his wings, and cleaned his bright orange bill on a bough. Then his full, reed-like music floated over the fields. The skylarks soared above the upland pastures, and a shower of song descended to the valley out of the pearl-blue haze just lifting in a cloud from the hill-top. Presently the blackbird flew from the apple-tree to feed beside the hedge, and the larks dropped from the mist into the grass. But for the crackle of the cottage fire as the keeper busied himself with the preparation of his morning meal, and the rustle of a withered leaf as the blackbird moved to and fro in the ditch, not a sound disturbed the silence of the dawn. Soon the haze lifted, leaving the dew thick on the grass by the ditch, and on the moss and the ivy in the hedgerow bank. The larks soared once more into the sky; a robin sang wistfully in the ash; a brown wren, with many a flick of her tiny wings and many a merry curtsy, hopped in and out among the trees, trilling loudly a gleeful carol. The tits flew hither and thither, twittering to each other as they flew. The hedge-sparrows' metallic notes sounded clear amid all the varied music, as the birds, moving among the hazels and gently flirting their wings, pursued their coy mates from bough to bough. Through the raised curtain of the mist the sun—a white globe hardly too brilliant to be boldly looked at—illumined the dewy fields with its faint beams, till the cloud-streaked sky became a clear expanse, and the blue and brown countryside glowed with the splendour of a perfect morning. The wind changed and freshened, so that the call of a farm labourer to his team and the constant voice of the river were distinctly heard in the level valley below the wood.