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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Old Tom's Tales - `Snowflake'

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Old Tom’s Tales:

A Tale of Two Foxes (or Two Foxy Tales)

The poor old publicity-shy fox has had more media attention since the hunting ban went through parliament than it’s ever had, and foxes seem to be an emotive subject for discussion throughout the land – especially in rural areas!

`The fox is the lone survivor of a list of extinct predatory animals native to these shores'

The fox is the lone survivor of a list of extinct predatory animals native to these shores, and thus, stands unchallenged at the head of it’s food chain – and it will eat virtually anything, although it is quite partial to a nice meal of lamb or chicken! Thus, foxes are classified as vermin – but there are two sides to every story…………….

Recently my old black labrador-cross bitch put up a fox hiding in a rotting sheep carcass, and in the ensuing chase, it was apparent why.

The fleeing fox had a crushed pelvis, and carried it’s badly emaciated rear flanks behind in an awkward and ungainly gait for a good thirty yards, before going to ground in complete exhaustion under the cover of some tall reeds in a boggy patch of ground by the water’s edge in the valley bottom.

`Only the red bush of its tail gave it away as I approached'

Only the red bush of it’s tail gave it away as I approached, and the dog circled cautiously around on the opposite side, sniffing the air to locate her quarry - and then backing off sharply as the injured fox turned and hissed a defiant warning. The creature lay curled up on it’s side in self-protection, it’s pink tongue hanging loosely from it’s open jaws, which seemed drawn back in an agonised grimace as it lay there panting heavily.

Sadly, there was only one thing to do – so I sent for Arnold the Lanc, and the fox was despatched swiftly and humanely.

As we walked back to the farm speculating about what had caused the fox’s appalling injuries, I suddenly remembered a similar incident many years ago which had a completely different outcome.

It’s amazing how the years seem to speed up as one gets older – and how certain events trigger the vivid recollection of long buried memories.

I remember it all as if it had happened only yesterday, and yet it was almost half a century ago.

Bernard and me were still hill farming back in 1958 – just a few sheep, a couple of goats and some chickens – nothing more than a smallholding really, but being a countryman was more a way of life than a business in those days. Commercial enterprise had nothing to do with the ramshackle collection of old buildings which was our home, and had been home to our family for almost two hundred years.

We were standing at the old wooden door of the shippon, looking up the bleak fell-side. The winter wind was keening up on the ridge, whining and howling through the pines which danced and bowed under a lowering sky.

The first snowflakes of the season began to race down the valley as we turned for the comfort of the log fire, which crackled invitingly in the kitchen hearth. I was reaching for the mug of steaming tea which Bernard had placed beside me on the table when I heard a faint cry, like a cat’s.

I decided it was nothing more than the wind whipping with increasing strength through the larches at the top of the drive, and turned my attention back to the newspaper I was reading.

Two hours later I was trudging up the fellside in six inches of crisp, white freshly fallen snow, searching in the light of my lantern for the source of the yowling and barking which had gone on ever since I’d finished my dinner.

Suddenly I saw it! A young dog fox lying on the bank side ahead.

Both its back legs were splayed out behind and being dragged awkwardly along, as it scrabbled in the snow to escape my intrusion into its agony.

It snarled and nipped and squirmed before Bernard and I managed to set the shattered limbs with two halves of a broken broom handle and a yard of bandage. Amazingly, Snowflake (as we were to call him) survived, thanks to the skill and care of our local vet, who performed miracles to repair the damage. I wanted to keep him, at least until he was strong enough to fend for himself back in the wild.

Bernard was worried; “We can’t keep it, t’aint natural, foxes is vermin, and nowt good’ll cum uv it; besides, it’d ate all t’chickens” he said, with alarm. “We could keep it penned up in the old stables, and no one would know”, I suggested, but Bernard wasn’t convinced.

“Fowks’d talk, an’ anyway, it’s probably illegal’, he argued, `and somebody’d probably shoot it f’r worryin’ t’sheep”.

“It couldn’t worry sheep if it was locked up” I ventured, hopefully.

“That’s what they said ‘bout Grandfer’ Bates”, Bernard chuckled.

“If they’d shot Owd Repro, instead o’ lockin’ ‘im up f’r two years, we would’na be on this earth!”

Somehow, I convinced Bernard, and Snowflake became part of our small family, sharing the old stables with Tarn and Beck, our two Border Collies, for the best part of a year.

He played at fighting and hunting with the other dogs, and although he tended to hop rather than run, he even attempted to work the sheep!

Now foxes are extremely intelligent creatures – very instinctive and crafty, and this I learned to my embarrassment in the March of 1961.

The winter of that year had been long and hard, and in our part of the world we hadn’t seen a green field for almost four months.

One strangely calm and quiet evening, with the earth hard frozen and canopied by a multitude of brightly twinkling stars which hung in the clear, black sky like droplets of crystal ice, we heard the howling bark of a vixen – and the answering call of a dog-fox coming from the old stables!

I looked over at Bernard and said, “Sounds like Snowflake’s got the message!”

“Yep, it does by t’ row it’s makin’, it’s call o’ t’wild, an’ it’s about time it were answered, if you ask me”, he replied, pausing to light his pipe.

`Y’ know, he mused, `it’s on’y natural that he should want to be off, I mean, after all, he’s a wild animal, an’ we really oughta’ let ‘im go’.

I argued that he would be unable to fend adequately for himself, the back legs being as they were, stiff and weakened by injury, and that he’d probably starve.

“He’s as much part of the family now, as the two dogs are’, I added.

“All t’same, it still in’t natural to keep ‘im”, he said finally, puffing away at his pipe with renewed gusto.

I suddenly realised that the barking had stopped. “I think I’ll go and check on the dogs’, I said.

The stable was empty. Both dogs and fox had gone!

I rushed back into the house and grabbed the lantern, and hastily searched for warm clothing. Snowflake had gone to answer the call of the vixen – and Tarn and Beck had gone along too. If they got on the trail of the vixen a fight could break out, and we couldn’t afford to lose two good working dogs.

It was almost midnight, and I thought I was on the point of freezing to death up on the fell, when Tarn and Beck suddenly appeared, leaping up at me, barking and whimpering with pleasure at seeing me there.

I laughed with relief at finding them safe, although as I looked hastily around, holding my lantern higher, trying to penetrate the blackness there was no sign of Snowflake.

Just as I began to despair, Beck barked eagerly and dashed off up the fell-side, and I trudged forward up the slope in pursuit.

Suddenly about twelve feet in front of me I saw him.

Snowflake was crawling along, almost totally exhausted.

I ran to him and carried him back as quickly as I could to the house.

He nuzzled and licked at me feebly as I laid him gently in his box in the old stable, and rushed indoors for some old coats to keep him warm.

“I think he’ll be OK’, I told Bernard, `his legs couldn’t take it and I think he’s just tired out.’

“By ‘eck, but theers some barmy buggers about, - an’ ah’m lookin’ at one” he glared at me from his chair, “All this fer a bloody fox!”

“Well, y’can freeze like a heedjut if yer like, but I’m goin’ to bed’, he said, thrusting a bundle of old clothes at me. `I’ll put t’electric blanket on in your room’ he added, pushing me out the door and towards the old stables.

I leaned over the box to put the clothes in – and it was empty!

I spun around and glanced at the other two boxes.

Two pairs of eyes glared back at me, and Beck and Tarn appeared none too delighted at all the commotion.

But Snowflake was gone. I made a swift circuit of the yard, and all the outbuildings – plenty of snow, but no Snowflake!

I ran to the house to borrow Bernard’s torch, and he looked at me in owlish surprise from around his half open bedroom door.

`He’s gone again’ I muttered dejectedly. `I can’t see how he’s managed it in his condition, it should be impossible!’

Bernard looked tired and disinterested, “Power o’ nature makes owt possible”, was all he could mutter, before closing the door and instantly shutting me out of his world.

I returned to the arctic night to search for my absent friend.

It was well past three in the morning when I finally gave up and slumped down in the old stables next to the empty box. I was so exhausted that I fell into a very cold, and fitful sleep, finally rousing myself just before dawn and dragging myself wearily across the frozen yard into the warmth of the house in utter defeat.

Bernard was already up and was putting a shovel of coal on last nights embers as I walked wearily into the kitchen. He glanced round as I came in.

“No luck?” he muttered gruffly.

“No, nothing, I replied, `Snow’s covered everything. He’s gone, and with those back legs immobile, he’s probably frozen to death by now”.

“Bound to ‘appen, - just as well an’all – t’weren’t natural” muttered Bernard, who was a man of few words.

“It’s not natural for me to be out all night either’, I responded, ‘I almost froze to death myself, so I may as well get a couple of hours in a nice warm bed.”

I was half listening to Bernard as I climbed the stairs. He was just saying something about forgetting to switch the electric blanket off, as I stepped through the open bedroom door – and there, fast asleep in the middle of the nice warm bed, was Snowflake!

Bernard, hearing my shout of surprise, had suddenly appeared at my shoulder, and as he stood framed in the bedroom doorway with his mouth agape in surprise, I looked up at the astonished expression on his face,

“Now tell me that’s natural” I said, triumphantly!

“No, t’ain’t, said Bernard,…an’thou’d do well to ‘member what ‘appened to Granfer!’

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