Of all the mammals in Great Britain, few – if indeed any – are as deeply linked with the British countryside and its culture as Vulpes vulpes, the Fox. Also called the Red Fox by many throughout the non-British portions of its Northern Hemisphere spanning range, this largest of the Vulpes genus also happens to be the most wide-ranging carnivore in the world.
However in nowhere else throughout its range has the Fox become such an enduring iconic figure as in Great Britain. Stretching back to the verses of Chaucer and running up through works of Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl, the Fox has both endured and changed, shifting its habits and adapting to alterations in its surroundings, be they cultural or temporal, as well – as we shall presently see – as physical. And it is this very endurance and adaptability (both biologically as well as ecologically) as well as its cultural significance that Lucy Jones so superbly takes up as her subjects in Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.
Beginning with an overview of both the natural as well as literary history of the Fox, Ms. Jones proceeds into examinations of more modern inter-relationships between Foxes and humans. In the process, her readers are introduced to farmers (both pro and anti Fox), conservationists, animal rights activists, hunters, pest control agents, and even much-beloved members of her own family. It is indeed a wide-ranging cast of characters, from which is drawn one very clear message: where opinions about Foxes are concerned, the British people are remarkably united in their extraordinary disunity. Much like the old saw about asking ten economists a question and receiving eleven different answers, ask ten British subjects their respective opinions about Foxes and you’d be lucky to get as few as eleven.
As Ms. Jones so well conveys, those who make their living killing Foxes as pests can also simultaneously hold them in deep affection, while those who love them can also be capable of doing them no good whatsoever. Indeed, the matter is perhaps best summed up by the words of one urbanite reflecting on how nice it is to see wild Foxes in the city and in the very next sentence off-handedly giving voice to the perceived necessity of exterminating them there.
Of course, no treatment of the modern place of, and thinking about, Foxes in Britain would be complete without the inclusion of at least a few words about that most iconically British Fox-related activity: fox hunting. Described by dear old Mr. Wilde as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” fox hunting as an activity approaches the wholly unfathomable to most all outside the Sceptered Isle, as well as being thought fathomably unholy to a good portion of those living there. From an outsider’s perspective, it is truly ludicrous; a small continent of cavalry in tandem with a large pack hounds charging across the countryside in pursuit of a creature roughly the size of a Cocker Spaniel, which if caught, will be torn to bits by the pack and its blood subsequently smeared on the cheeks of any small children for whom it was their first hunt. No outsider to such a practice could ever hope to portray such a tradition with anything even approaching a balanced perspective. However Ms. Jones is not an outsider.
Born and raised in a family for which fox hunting was a cherished tradition – one it should be noted in which she no longer participates – much like the Foxes about which she writes, Ms. Jones possesses the ability to live, as it were, in “both worlds,” adapting and adjusting (in the best traditions of journalism) her behavior and approach to her topic according to her surroundings. And in truth, I can’t recall ever having previously read any treatment of the subject to which the author took such care as to present it so even-handedly and thoroughly as that which Ms. Jones does in Foxes Unearthed. Neither condemning those aspects not deserving of condemnation nor praising that not praise-worthy, she provides her readers with insight into what British fox hunting both was in the past and what it is today, and even more importantly conveying how those on both sides of the subject understand it.
This is one of the elements of Foxes Unearthed that I found most enlightening. As it presently stands, fox hunting in Britain is banned. However, this ban is a subject of the most heated of debates; being seen variously as a national stand against animal cruelty, a struggle between the social classes, and an outgrowth of the ongoing war of urbanized Britain against rural Britain. In some sense, all of these can be seen as partly true; and yet none of them is quite as simple as they seem. Those who support the ban primarily do so on the grounds that the manner in which traditionally hunted Foxes are killed is cruel and brutal (I would tend to agree). To which the hunters reply that fox hunting is neither cruel nor brutal as the fox dies a quick death, and besides, it’s not about the kill nearly so much as it’s an important social class spanning element of rural social and economic life (this “social and economic life” aspect was something that I previously would have called balderdash but after reading Ms. Jones’ book I am included to now think it at least predominantly true).
Even the ban itself is a bit difficult to understand. While fox hunting is illegal, everything about it except pursuing and killing an actual fox is not. Consequently, the “hunts” (the hundreds of very localized organizations that stage fox hunts) still muster in their “pink” (scarlet) coats, turn out the hounds, and gallop on horseback through the countryside. The only difference is that they are only allowed to pursue a previously scent-layed trail or “drag” rather than a live fox. The purpose, the hunters explain, of all this is to keep themselves and their hounds in good condition should the ban ever be lifted. Of course, if a fox should pop out into the middle of all this, the hunt is required to prevent the dogs from chasing and killing it; however accidents do sometimes happen.
These “accidents” are what the saboteurs (or “sabs;” ardent anti-hunt activists who set out to disrupt and prevent the hunts) claim is the real reason for these mock hunts continuation. Now almost as much a part of the modern British fox hunt as fox hounds and brass horns, the sabs seek both to prevent the hunts occurring as well as to document any violations of the ban which they witness. To do so, they often place themselves in considerable danger (needless to say, the hunt members do not view them kindly, adjudging by the rhetoric of the sabs, the feeling is mutual).
Thus, in the best tradition of an investigative journalist, Ms. Jones went out on both a hunt as well as on a hunt disruption with a group of sabs in order to obtain the most thorough and nuanced understanding she could of the perspectives held by those on both sides of the subject. The result is not only superb journalism, it provides – thanks to her extraordinary writing skill – the reader with material that is genuinely compelling; one truly does not wish to put it down.
Of course, in Britain, one now need no longer go out into the countryside to see a fox. In fact, spending a bit of time in the cities will actually offer a better chance of seeing one, as for the past few decades the population of urban foxes has been growing rapidly. From back gardens and side streets to the – difficult as it is to believe – top of London’s Shard, Britain’s cities have become prime fox habitat. While this might be thought odd by some, Ms. Jones deftly explains how the natural habits and diet of the fox align so well with modern British cities. And while they are occasionally the subject of the odd (and I do mean “odd”) tabloid story, they seem to offer a net benefit to the cities themselves, presenting no pathological (rabies does not exist in Britain) or significant physical danger to any other than the cities’ rodent population.
But enough. Continuing further will simply lead me to follow more trails down which the reader is better guided by the words of Ms. Jones herself. Suffice it to say that I give my most hearty and enthusiastic recommendation to Foxes Unearthed and hope that everyone reading this essay will seek out and purchase a copy to discover just how much enlightening information as well as reading enjoyment its pages contain.
Author: Lucy Jones
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Format: hardcover & paperback
Pages: 320 pp.
Published: hardcover – (UK) May 2016, (US) August 2016 ; paperback – (UK) March 2017, (US) March 2017
ISBN: hardcover – 9781783961498
ISBN: paperback – 9781783963041
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.