Elliott & Thompson kindly asked me to review Lucy Jones’ debut book Foxes Unearthed, a wonderfully constructed exploration of the ways that we feel about foxes in modern Britain. Perhaps other than Brock, few other mammals attract such strong opinions or are embroiled in contemporary debates at the heart of British politics. Jones constructs a narrative that captivates the reader but is also distinctly impartial, although one gets the feeling that she sits on the side of the fox. She admits in the prologue that she is captivated by this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed large mammal; it has ‘cast its spell’ on her. By the end of the book, we see that her personal connection with foxes is visceral.
‘We walked for a while, her in front, me a few paces behind. In those seconds, I got the sense that we were one and the same, that we were both just animals, mammals, predators, denizens of this earth’.
It is her impartiality, driven by her journalistic experience, and her acute research skill that make this a book worth reading for anyone with the slightest interest in vulpes vulpes. For me, the strongest sections of the book are her personal recollections of joining hunts on both sides (in the field of the hunt itself and with the saboteurs). For this book is as much about human beings and human conflict as it is about foxes. Class divisions are raised as perceived cultural boundaries, used to justify a particular way of thinking. This is acutely apparent in an interview Jones recollects with Ricky Gervais:
‘’It’s a privileged few who do it [hunting]. Think how many people actually go fox hunting out of 60 million people. It’s ludicrous.’’
Jones sensitively explores the wide-ranging viewpoints that people have of this animal, from a lady hunter who told her that if she could have her way, she’d kill all the foxes in Britain, to the hunt saboteurs and animal rights activists who go out week after week to make their case heard as ‘the people standing up for the fox’. Jones is not judgemental in the least, and this I believe makes the book the success it is. It enables readers to make up their own minds, whilst being given an insight into the varied views on foxes, and not just relating to the hunting debate. Foxes are explored within literature, urban environments, media accounts with reports of fox attacks, animal rescue centres and of course on the country estate.
Good nature writing should have a mix of cultural literary analysis and personal accounts, and Jones achieves both of these. It is particularly gripping to read her own familial accounts of hunting, especially the positive feelings of her grandfather towards the sport, and she reflects this in the experiences of others, such as those of Devon farmer and naturalist Rebecca Hosking, whose father eventually banned their local hunt from riding across his land.
The fox is an antidote for our continuing loss of ‘connection’ with the natural world. Charlie is the last great natural bastion for many of us who long to experience a large wild mammal in our day to day lives. For the fox has become just as much an urban sensation as one of the countryside, often being more visible on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities, than it is in the fields and woods, partly due to population density, on the part of both fox and human being.
Such visibility impacts on our perceptions of rising and falling populations, and of foxes as a ‘threat’ towards our own health and security. Jones is effective in her presentation of the science of fox demographics and explains how populations rise and fall through the year. Her narrative is aided through regularly referring to the work of David Macdonald and Stephen Harris, who have both studied foxes more than any other scientists in the world, as well as undertaking first hand interviews with a range of natural history experts, including Chris Packham.
Foxes Unearthed is a refreshingly honest and impartial account of our changing relationship with foxes in the British Isles. From appearances in literature, in which they are presented as much as hero as villain, to the modern media, who often cannot resist latching on to the perceived conflict between animal and man, we seem as divided as ever in our opinions regarding vulpes vulpes. Jones is thorough in her research and captivating in her writing style. It is refreshing to come across a book that does not seek to exclude any aspect of countryside (or urban) animal politics, and successfully integrates the fundamental stories of human interaction with the natural world, as a central factor in explaining the ways in which we experience modern life.
Foxes Unearthed is already available in hardback and kindle formats and the paperback edition will be available from 16th March 2017, priced at £9.99