Big thank you from

Nothing sly about this fox research

by Paul Cormacain

RECENTLY I had the great satisfaction of attending the launch of a survey which is all going to be done by young folk.

There is some guiding and more experienced help, but it was fascinating to observe, and listen to, the teenagers saying it as they saw it.

The idea came from a youth leader in west Belfast, who thought he detected a rise in the number of fox sightings. He put it to the young people in the youth club, and before you could say 'Reynard' these guys were embarking on a planning frenzy.

The way to find out if there were more foxes was to try and check the number of foxes, and it certainly seemed to me that this involved much hard research.

James Fairley has done much research on foxes. Educated in Campbell College and at Queens, he was a lecturer in zoology until his retirement. Before he lectured he carried out a scientific study of the fox in Northern Ireland for the Ministry of Agriculture.

He has subsequently written a number of books, mostly about animals in Ireland, and perhaps his best known one is An Irish Beast Book, possibly the definitive book on animals.

James tells me that the fox averages about 700 cms long in head and body. The tail is then anything from 220 to 420 cms, while the weight is between five and 10 kilos.

The fox has been here since before historic time. They could well have crossed a land bridge some 8,000 years ago. When the countries of Ireland, and Wales, Scotland, England started to split up, it is possible that foxes could have swum over a narrow channel before the Irish Sea proper was formed.

Some folk have conjectured that humans may have introduced the fox into Ireland. This is highly speculative, and is based on the fact that the skins of foxes, not to mention squirrels and martens, used to be highly valued.

Very interested in this original research is the National Lottery Heritage Fund. That organisation is responsible for funding the whole project, and the funding details seem to me to be absolutely generous and wonderful.

Listening to the young folk at the launch of the scheme, it seems to me that they would have been keen and enthusiastic regardless of the funding. Perhaps the National Lottery Fund detected the enthusiasm, and then determined to help in a big way.

I had better add, perhaps the Lottery Fund always helps in a big way!

The survey is taking place over a three-month period, ending the last day in April. The St Teresa's Youth Centre, for that is the name of the group, is asking for help from friends and the greater public in reporting sightings.

If you see a fox in west Belfast in the next few months, you are asked to report the sighting to free phone 0800 5874470. All you need note is the time, date and general size of the animal.

I live outside the area, in south Belfast, so sighting a fox in our garden will not do much for the research. Because this is a unique enterprise, I suspect that other areas will be checked out in the future, so I must start taking records of fox sightings in the garden, and indeed on the roads.

Interest is also high in the Ministry of Education, and that department was represented at the launch. Annie O'Kane very ably represented the Ulster Wildlife Trust. She spoke to the meeting and provided leaflets and information. She also had a fox with her, which she said was a stuffed fox, but I am sure it was looking at me half the time.

Without a fox was the Department of Environment Heritage Trust. Leading that interest is Dr Declan Looney, who is advising on the methodology to be employed.

Back to the object of the research. In appearance the fox is undoubtedly dog-like, but more slender than most dogs. Its muzzle is finer and sharper, which accounts for that sly expression it is labelled with.

James Fairley tells us that the foxes of north east Ireland, like Scottish foxes, are larger than English ones.

The male fox is larger than the vixen. He also has a thicker muzzle, and this may help you differentiate between the sexes. The fox has a dense short under fur close to the skin, and there are then long guard hairs overlying the shorter hair. The animal is usually reddish brown, but there can be variations.

Much has been written about the magic of fox hunting, but it can not be too magical for the fox. The hounds and horses, with the dressed up members of a hunt, can be very photogenic and colourful, but James Fairley tends to go back to one of our great writers, Oscar Wilde. Oscar described fox hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable". Sounds a bit grumpy!

So best wishes to this young group from west Belfast. The ones I spoke to and listened to were keen, enthusiastic, dedicated, and I think they will do a grand job. Hang on the freephone number.

Coming Events

Monday 28th February - Lisburn RSPB has Anthony McGeehan and Sea Bird Detective Stories in Friends Meeting House, contact David McCreedy on 4062 6125

Sunday 6th March - The Dinosaurs of Colin Glen, at 1lain, at the Glen Centre, air exploration of the geology of the glen, more from 9061 4115

Friday 11 to Sunday 13th March - Birdwatch Ireland and the RSPB get together at the Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen, for their Annual Wildlife Conference. Details from 9049 1547