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On fox paws

Although the fox is widely renowned, there are only a few people who have seen the animal on one of his trips in the country. Most of these people came across him by chance and saw him for just a few seconds. That's because foxes are unobtrusive animals. They usually see people before people notice them and if they do, they hide away or they flee. Most of the time, foxes are active at night and they are rather -but rightly- timid. Before you want to see the animal for yourself, you have to be assured of his presence, in other words, you have to find his tracks. One of the ways to find them is by taking a walk in the area where the fox is staying. Footprints are the most obvious and the most easy recognizable tracks. However, the fox is a canid and his footprints look like those of a dog, but with just a small but clear/distinct difference: the pads of the middle toes lie in front of the pads of the outer toes, there is no overlapping (you can draw a line between both pads without the pads crossing this line, see yellow line in figure);dogs do have this overlapping. A fox's prints are also a lot smaller (oval/egg-shaped) than that of a dog whose prints are broader and ponderous (circular). The claws of the front toes point at each other. The footprint is about 55 millimetre long (compare: a piece of twenty francs is 25 millimetre in diameter). The morning after snowfall is the most ideal time to look for these tracks. You can then follow the tracks for quite a distance and at the same time learn something about the nightly expeditions of the fox. You will probably run into some other tracks, like remainders/rests of prey animals a fox has left behind, or scent marks (yellow spots in the snow, in other words urine) and maybe some tracks of other foxes. Besides the footprints there is another kind of tracks: a fox drags his long tail through the snow and draws lines in it (see picture right). Like all other mammals, a fox has to take a shite now and then. The excrements a fox then leaves behind are a token of his presence and a way to stake out his territory. These excrements can be found in heightened places: on a sod, a remainder of an animal of prey,...and, as you can see on the picture (left), on a stone. While walking in the woods, you can also inhale the typical fox smell when you walk by an invisible scent mark. Pieces of fur are also a good source of fox-presence, mostly find on the lower sides of barbed-fences, the hairs are soft and reddisch.

Fox holes are a bit harder to find, but that's only logical: foxes like hiding-outs that are not accessible to people and that are situated in quiet, hidden and undisturbed places. The ground in these places has to be dry and solid but ready for digging. Foxes prefer digging their holes in a declivity (like a slope, a railway bank, a dike...). They also like a playground for the cubs at the entrance of a hole. A fox's territory mostly consists of a number of holes and the hole with the most entries and exits is the most used one. Most of the time, you can clearly distinguish the head entry of these holes: it's the place where there is the biggest heap of excavated ground that is trampled down. Other entries are mostly covered with leaves, branches and so on. The tunnels of these holes have to be big enough; they measure about 20 cm in diameter (compare with a one liter bottle of SPA measuring 30,9 cm in height). In the centre of the holes are one or more rooms. The entry has an oval upright shape/form (more flattened in a badger hole) and the excavated ground lies on a heap in front of the entry (more around the entry in case of a badger hole). If the entry of a hole is covered with leaves and branches, then the hole is abandoned. But a fox hole is not necessarily used throughout the year. So if you find an abandoned hole, that doesn't mean that there are no foxes living in that area. An inhabited hole is usually recognized by the remainders of animals of prey lying around it. These remainders are a source of information, but are certainly no reference to the normal menu of the inhabitant/but certainly don't tell anything about the normal menu of the inhabitant, because remainders of f.e. little rodents will never be found around a fox hole although rodents are one of the most important preys!!!). Finding out where these remainders come from, may be an indiction of the hiding place of the fox, besides remanders of preys there are also packets of fries, milk cartons, yogurtcans and also the neighbours' chicken, tame pheasants from a pseudo-hunting area in the neighbourhood, my leather shoe that I dried on the terrace of a holiday-residence in Frahan...But pay attention: if you have found a fox hole, leave the place immediately and don't take a look in it. Your visit could lead to a moving of the fox family. It's best to visit these fox holes only during winter, during that time they are mostly abandoned and also the vegetation is a lot thinner allowing you more easely to find them. Don't forget that in Flanders a fox can't be killed in a radius of 25 meter around the fox holes. 

Some useful information for the collectors amongst us: the skull of a fox differs from a dog's skull by a hole in the bones just above both eye-sockets (see yellow zones on drawing). That zone has a spherical shape with dogs.

 

The most succesful way to end a day of tracking is ofcourse seeing the fox himself. You can run into him while talking a walk late in the evening, but you can also wait on him and that takes a lot of patience. Anyway, if you want to see and study the fox, then you will have to have this kind of patience and, in the end, experience will follow automatically. One by one, you will learn the tricks, you will get to know the fox, and you will learn where and when and in what conditions you will have a big chance of seeing the animal. And believe me, it's worth it! I once saw a cuforaging together with a badger (both animals stayed close to each other and they were interested in each others way of foraging) and one time I was following a foraging fox at nearly 2 meter...
With such encounters I quickly forgot all the times that I came home after a day of tracking, completely benumbed and soaking wet, without having seen one damn rabbit.

Hans Schockaert