Tim Dowling: the fox hunter
My garden project has never had an outright enemy. Until the fox
My cheek is touching the side of the tent, thereby conducting rainwater down the side of my face and into a pool beneath my ear. It's the Queen's fault: it is because of her jubilee that I have come to a party where I can only be accommodated under canvas. But in the middle of the night, cold and aching from the effort required to stay on my sloping air mattress, I am not thinking bad thoughts about the Queen. I am thinking bad thoughts about a fox.
I have for some years maintained a small pretend farm in the back garden. It has become weirdly important to me that I am self-sufficient when it comes to coriander. This project has its detractors – snails, slugs, certain people who feel the challenges of married life are not best addressed by having two kinds of radish – but it has never had an outright enemy. Until the fox.
On the first night, the fox digs a hole where I have just planted some beans. In the morning, I try to guess at its motivation: why the beans? I put some sticks around the plants as a deterrent, and leave the garden light on. The next morning, after the fox uproots all the sticks and snaps my tomato plants off at the base, I can think only of ways to make it die.
On the third night, I see the fox, clawing a trench through the middle of my chard. I shout, but it barely pauses in its work. I open the garden door and throw a cup at it, missing badly. The fox climbs up on the shed roof and turns back to look at me.
"I'm going to kill you," I say.
The fox doesn't seem worried by this. It realises, I think, that my ability to pose a threat is limited. It probably saw that before I threw the cup, I paused to check that it was one of the plastic ones.
The dogs come into the kitchen and stare at me. I turn to them and throw up my hands.
"Where were you?" I shout. "What are you for?"
In the morning I fill in the holes, string wire around the top of the garden wall and construct unsightly barriers from sticks and twine. I stay up late, watching and waiting, but the fox does not come.
The next morning, the garden looks like the Somme. There are huge craters in all the beds. The fox has got under the netting and flattened a row of cabbages. Little seedlings lie scattered across the scarred earth.
"I can see that's upsetting," my wife says.
"It's won," I say. "And it knows it's won."
Driving through the countryside, I feel obliged to reassess my previous objections to foxhunting. I wonder if, under the circumstances, it is cruel enough. I can't bear to think about what damage the fox will do while we're away. When it has finished with the garden, it will probably get in the house and erase Mad Men.
At our jubilee lunch, someone relates a story he heard from a vet. An elderly couple who ran over a fox brought it to the animal hospital and insisted on paying for an expensive, life-saving operation. The vet obliged, only to discover during surgery that the fox had already had its hip replaced.
Typical, I think – foxes have no respect for our way of life, but they're happy to take advantage of our free health service. I realise that my new hatred of foxes is disturbingly like the Daily Mail's hatred of immigrants. I try to imagine how I would feel if my garden was vandalised by, say, some Latvians. Then I think: get a grip.