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.
Sickened by the pungent smell, and with muzzle, lips, and right eye burning horribly from his wounds and the irritant poison, Vulp hastily dropped his prey, and ignominiously bolted from the scene of the encounter. Soon, however, he stopped ; the pain in his eye seemed beyond endurance. He tried to rub away the noxious fluid with his paws, but his frantic efforts only increased the irritation by conveying the poison to his other eye and to his wounds. He rolled and sneezed and grunted in torment; he drew his muzzle and cheeks to and fro on the ground, wrestling with the great Earth-Mother for help in direst agony. He could not open his eyes; he stumbled blindly against a tree-trunk, and at last became entangled in the prickly undergrowth. This was Nature's method of succour—she forced her wildling to remain quiet, in helpless exhaustion, till the pain subsided and life could once again be endured. Panting and sick, the cub lay outstretched among the thorns, while the tears flowed from his eyes and the froth hung on his hps. Presently, however, relieved by the copious discharge, he recovered his senses, and, miserably cowed, with head and brush hanging low, returned before dawn to the covert. But the vixen in fury drove the cub away; the scent still clung to him, and rendered him obnoxious even to his mother. In shame he retired to a dense "double" hedge of hawthorn, where he hid throughout the day, till he could summon sufficient courage at dusk to hunt for some dainty morsel wherewith to tempt his sickened appetite. But before taking up his position above the entrance to a rabbit warren, he drank at the brook, dipped his tainted fore-paws in the running water, and, sitting by the margin, removed from his face, as far as possible, the traces left by the previous night's conflict. Repeatedly, at all hours of the day and the night, he licked his paws and with them washed his wounded muzzle and inflamed eyes; but so obstinately did the offensive odour cling to him that a fortnight elapsed before the last vestige of the nuisance disappeared. Meanwhile, he narrowly escaped the mange ; and, to add to the discomfort of his wounds, he experienced, now that his mother's aid was lacking, some difficulty in obtaining sufficient fresh food.
At length he recovered, and new, downy hair clothed the wounds and the scratches on his muzzle and throat. Sleek and strong once more, he was welcomed as a penitent prodigal by the relenting vixen, and, having in the period of his solitary wanderings learned much about the habits of the woodland folk, was doubtless able to assist his mother in the future training of the vixen-cubs.
In that luckless fortnight he had acquired a taste for young pheasants, had picked up a few fat pigeon-squabs belonging to the last broods of the year, and had sampled sundry articles of diet—frogs, slugs, snails, a young hedgehog or two, and a squirrel that, overcome with inquisitiveness, descended from the tree-tops to inspect the young fox as he dozed among the bilberries carpeting the forest floor.
Another incident occurred, to which, at the time, the cub attached considerable importance. He had killed what seemed to be a large, heavy rabbit, which, though evidently possessed of a healthy appetite, was almost scentless, and differed in taste from any he had hitherto captured. He was not particularly hungry, so he buried the insipid flesh, and resolved never to destroy another rabbit that did not yield a full, strong scent. Shortly afterwards, when, under the eye of the bright August moon, Vulp and the vixen were hunting in the wheatfields, he detected a similarly weak scent along the hedgerow, and learned from his wise mother it was that of a doe-hare about to give birth to her young, and therefore hardly worth the trouble of following. The vixen further explained that, except when other food was scarce, creatures occupied, or about to be occupied, with maternal cares—even the lark in the furrow and the willow-warbler in the hole by the brook—were far less palatable than at other times. The cub was also told how, just before he came into the world, the hounds had chased his mother from the thicket, and how old Reveller, the leader of the pack, had headed the reckless puppies, and, rating them for their discourtesy, had led them away to scour another part of the covert.
With the advance of autumn, a great change passed over the countryside. The young fox now found it necessary to choose his paths with care as he wandered through the darkness, lest the rabbits should be warned of his approach by the crisp rustle of his " pads " on the leaves that had fallen in showers on the grass. Hitherto he had associated the presence of man with that of something good for food. An occasional dead rabbit was still to be found near the old "earth," and, strange to relate, the man-scent leading to the place was never fresher or staler than that of the rabbit. In another spot—a wood-clearing not far from the keeper's lodge—the strong scent of pheasants always seemed to indicate that the birds had ventured thither in numbers to feed, and there, too, the man-scent was strong on the grass. The tracks of innumerable little creatures intersected the clearing in all directions, and, if but for the sport of watching the pheasants, the pigeons, the sparrows, and the voles playing and quarrelling in the undergrowth or partaking of the food provided by the keeper, the fox loved to lurk in the gorse near by. He evinced little real alarm even at the sight of man, though he felt a misgiving and instinctively knew that he must hide or keep at a distance till the curiously shaped monster had gone. The vixen warned him repeatedly; and she herself, after giving the signal " Hide!" would slink away, and wander for miles before returning to her family, if only the measured footfall of a poacher or a farm labourer sounded faintly through the covert.
But soon the young fox learned, in a way not to be misunderstood, that the presence of man meant undoubted danger. One day in October, as he was intently watching the movements of a sportsman in the copse, a big cock pheasant rose with a great clatter from the brambles, a loud report rang through the covert, and a shaggy brown and white spaniel dashed yelping into the bushes. Darting impetuously from his lair, the cub easily outdistanced the dog, and quickly found refuge in an adjoining thicket, where he remained in safety during the rest of the day. Night brought him another adventure. While crossing a pasture towards a wooded belt on the hillside, he discovered, to his surprise, that a man was creeping stealthily towards him through the shadows. A moment later, a great lurcher came bounding over the field. The fox turned, made for the hedgerow, and gained the friendly shelter of the hawthorns just as the dog crashed into the ditch. The frightened creature now ran along the opposite side of the hedge in a straight line towards the wood, and for a second time narrowly escaped the lurcher's teeth ; but, by keeping close to the ditch and among the prickly bushes on the top of the hedge-bank, he at last succeeded in baffling his long-legged foe and reached the wood unharmed.
Vulp had thus awakened to the dangers which, during winter and the earliest days of spring, were always to beset him. But the apprehensions caused by his little affair with the spaniel, and even by his narrow escape from the lurcher, were trifling compared with the dread and distress of being driven for hours before the hounds. And so full of perils was the first winter of his life that nothing but a combination of sheer luck with great endurance could then have sufficed to save him from destruction. Quickly, one after the other, the young vixens were missing from the thickets; soon afterwards, three of the cubs belonging to the litter that had been reared in the artificial "earth" disappeared; and an old fox, the sire of that litter, was killed after a long, wearisome chase almost to the cliffs on the distant coast.
One dark and dismal night in December, Vulp, on returning to the home thickets, failed to find his dam. Her trail was fresh; she had evidently escaped the day's hunt; but all his efforts to follow her met with no sort of success. Nature had brought about a separation; in the company of an adult fox, whose scent lay also on the woodland path, the vixen had departed from her haunts. The fox-cub remained, however, among the woodlands where he had learned his earliest lessons, and, for another year, hunted and was hunted—a vagrant bachelor.