Foxes Unearthed

The good people at Elliott & Thompson Books asked me to review Lucy Jones’ new book, Foxes Unearthed A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.

It’s the fox that has cast its spell on Lucy Jones.  An animal surrounded by myth, controversy, complications and conflict. It captivates her; whether glimpsed in the countryside or sensed as an “intriguing flash of bright-eyed wildness” in the city.

Yet it would be a mistake to think this is a book just about foxes. With ancestral links to hunting and journalistic experience of the deep passions the fox debate stirs, Jones’ book is a distinctly human story.

Natural history and science are used to burn off the misty half-truths of perceived wisdom and paint a vivid picture of a predator that is at heart an apex opportunist – capable of exploiting a huge range of habitats and environments. But by the book’s conclusion the fox has become more than just an animal, it is a symbol; a ruddy-haired motif in a narrative that is ultimately focused on our relationship with the natural world.

This is no bad thing. It is in the chapters dealing with the hunters and the saboteurs that Jones really finds her stride, her impartial approach getting under the skin of one of the ‘big issues’ of the modern age. Through spending time with those who would lay down their lives for a fox and those who range from appearing non-plussed to hell-bent on bloody extermination, Jones brilliantly (and often bravely) captures two uniquely British subcultures.

Being buried in these opposed worlds, enables Jones to fuse her talent for research with journalistic reporting. Facing down a hunt with a group of saboteurs her account is as gripping as it is tense:
“’Look back every dozen steps,’ I was advised, again. ‘They target women so just keep looking back.’ Adrenaline pumped through my veins. What the hell was I doing here?”

Such experiences also neatly capture her own complex relationship with hunting, quoting philosopher and hunt supporter Roger Scruton as she describes how she is “transfixed” by the beauty of the horses and the foxhounds. It is a scene that presumably evokes her own childhood memories of the countryside and a late grandfather who “had a fondness for hunting.”

The theme of class is never far away when it comes to hunting. While one former saboteur laments what he describes as the increasingly political motives of the animal rights movement, others are less apologetic. During an interview about a recent film, Ricky Gervais tells Jones that hunting is a “sick” activity carried out by the “privileged few”, or as he later calls them, “posh twats.”

The charting of the change in the media narrative around foxes is also interesting. Clippings from the 1940s to the mid nineties reveal that newspapers have traditionally held foxes in high esteem. In 1994 even the Daily Mail ran a story called ‘In praise of the unbeatable fox’. Jones explains how this would soon change and the balance tipped against the fox with the first reported incident of a child being attacked. Again the politics emerge, with both fox expert Stephen Harris and other academics finding a correlation between the political affiliations of newspapers and whether they publish anti-fox reports.

It is also worth mentioning Jones’ refreshing honesty. Paul Evans once wrote how it was essential to ‘keep it real’ to be a good nature writer and there is certainly no airbrushing here. After a conversation with Brighton University’s Dawn Scott, who suggests resentment of urban foxes ‘in our space’ is learned rather than natural behaviour, Jones decides to head to the beach. Surrounded by hungry gulls giving her chips the glad-eye she admits to feeling “oddly irritated” by their presence. “What”, she asks, “would it take for a fox to be too wild for me?”

Foxes Unearthed is published on 19 May, priced at £14.99