The evening starts with a bleep. In the dark of the cinema auditorium I fidget around for my mobile phone. There is a new text message: "The shoot is on tonight. Meet at corner of Hayes Road and Southall Lane." Immediately I scramble for the aisles, eager to get out onto the street and make my way to West London.
I am hurrying because I'm due to attend my first urban fox shoot. The black-cab driver says he wishes he could join me; he'd heard on the news that there were meant to be more than 10,000 foxes prowling the city's streets. He himself spotted a pack of fifteen of them while waiting for a client at Smithfield Market at 2am the previous week.
This night has taken many months to organise. Bruce, my guide, had said he would be happy to talk about his job as the capital's premier fox culler, tracking and taking out thousands of them each year. There had even been a photograph of him in one of the tabloid newspapers, togged up in a camouflage jacket and armed with a power-rifle, squatting proudly over the corpses of 23 foxes he had shot in a single night. But the photo had got him into trouble: pest control experts argued that it was impossible that so many foxes would congregate in the same area; reporters pointed to Bruce's criminal past, digging out details of the six-month suspended sentence he had received in 1988 for shooting a teenage boy with a 50,000-volt stun gun.
Bruce had lain low a little after that, occasionally scheduling get-togethers, only to cancel them at the last minute because of a spot of rain. By the time the cabbie drops me off near a desolate ring road at 10pm I'm pretty sure he won't show up tonight either. An all-night Sainsburys gushes out orange neon through which SUV-driving customers move on their way out of the suburb-sized car-park. Bug-eyed stoners, lean as syringes, jerking as if they've been electrocuted, lurch across a gas-station forecourt, nabbing customers and reeling off snot-caked stories about how they never got on with their parents and their girlfriends ditched them and a mate's phone is on the blink and could you lend us a fiver? Behind the plexiglass, an Indian till-clerk looks on with disgust.
People assume that killing foxes is cruel, but the way I look at it is this: it's like going to a restaurant. You're there in the dining room having a starter, looking forward to the main course, sitting there with a really nice glass of wine. The next second? All over! You don't feel any pain or any danger or see anything that's going to happen to you. It's not like you have to crawl into a ditch to die. Same with the fox: he comes out to eat, and the next second: he's stone-dead.
When I find Bruce, he's standing by his Range Rover in the car-park of a sprawling sports centre. The golf course that surrounds it has been invaded by foxes. Amateur players, retrieving miscued tee-shots from the rough, have leaped back, startled to find a pair of dark vulpine eyes peering at them. The greens have been scuffed and damaged too. Bruce and his two marksmen assistants have been called in to exterminate the foxes under cover of darkness. They wear camouflage gear and big boots. Bruce, who is bald and has the stocky physique of a journeyman wrestler, is busy stamping on some rabbits that he shot earlier that evening and has already strung to the car's rear bumper, crushing their intestines with his heel so that their scent will attract foxes. It's already an unusual night; most times, he baits the foxes with defrosted chicken drumsticks which he buys in packs of thirty from his local Iceland.
Bruce was brought up in the country. He started shooting when he was 16. He's 47 now and the log he keeps tells him that he shot over 1400 foxes last year. In a good week he'll trap seventy. Unlike other pest-control firms whose staff regard themselves as conscientious objectors and whose bosses fear that their vans will get attacked by protestors, Bruce's advertises itself on the basis of its long-established track record of culling foxes.
Each year the numbers are rising. The urban fox used to be an exotic creature, worth serious currency in the city-rumour stakes. He was a metropolitan Big Foot, a pavement Nessie. Now, as London expands, and the division between the city and the countryside becomes blurred, foxes are commonplace. They represent the return of repressed nature to a spayed and neutered capital. They battle down upon us because, whether we know it or not, we are wrecking their homes and whetting their appetites. They are the trace of the human.
And so they creep into the city, sharp-toothed soft treaders who are drawn to its cemeteries, industrial estates, overgrown gardens, public allotments. They are contagion made solid and set free. Black-economy thieves. Illegal aliens. Immigrants who feed off the capital's excess, its scraps and remnants, all the while inhabiting precarious, marginal lives out of view to most Londoners.
Urban fox, like urban rats, are stealth intellectuals. Each year they get tougher and tougher. They become hardened to the blare and roar of the city. Impervious to car fumes and to chemical or electrical smells. One meal can sustain them for a week; if they have four or five in a short period they develop energy to burn, and will lark around doing damage to gardens and to private property. They also thrive on challenges. A bait or trap left for a rat might stay untouched for days while the rodents ponder and cogitate; foxes though will regard them as a challenge. This high-risk strategy means that five traps left on a school playing field may yield a full house of five foxes the next morning. Equally, if one is caught, a vixen will show her cubs how to avoid danger in the future: she'll physically pull the trap and go off and dig beneath it before sliding her paws in at the side to retrieve the meat.
Short of a rabies epidemic hitting London, the urban fox is here to stay.
- We've missed our vocation. We should have been snipers in the armed forces.
- Why didn't you?
- There's nothing in the country worth fighting for. Unfortunately. The way everything's going...
The foxes who move through London at night aren't all diseased and scrofulous. Some are more Raffles than Artful Dodger, gentlemen thieves with a taste for the high life rather than sooty street-knaves. These gourmand foxes gravitate to Hampstead, Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, places where the gardens are manicured and expansive, and the leftovers are from the finest, most protein-filled cuts of meat. Their fur, when they're finally gunned down, will be sleeker, redder, more textured than that of their prole brethren rooting around in the dustbins of East End council estates.
Fox hunters love these areas too. The owners of the grand homes in Kensington Palace Gardens and the staff in the palatial West London embassies treat them with respect. Upon walking in, they are offered three-course meals served up on silver platters. After a glass of vintage wine (only one glass - the technicians worry that they might get tipsy and either fall asleep on the job or lose accuracy while shooting), they go upstairs where they are provided with a pair of bedroom slippers and a cushion for them to rest upon while they sit on the window sill waiting for the moment when they can blast away at the foxes. It certainly makes a change from having to squeeze into smelly vans for long stretches on wintry nights.
Areas that fox hunters don't like include Battersea, Croydon and Stratford. The councils here are less effective at organising regular culls. The foxes are more likely to be emaciated, rat-tailed and riddled with mange. They smuggle into the piping underneath the foundations of tower blocks or squeeze themselves into high-rise catflaps so that the flats get infested with thousands of fleas and tics. East London foxes tend to be small; one vixen caught ripping through sacks at a Romford warehouse was a mere twelve pounds, while a fox found in plusher Sutton was, at 32-and-a-half-pounds, almost the size of a collie. They are said to be noisier too. Those in Brixton and Finsbury Park squeal and shriek so horrifically that, according to Bruce, "it sounds like a baby crying or a woman being strangled to death."
One hunter tells me of a shoot he carried out at a three-floor Victorian house in south London. In the garden to one side were Australians and South Africans enjoying a barbecue while a dog ran up and down; on the other side, a couple was having a meal outside while listening to classical music. Neither sets of individuals knew that at the end of the garden a few yards away from them, two foxes were eating set bait and were about to be shot in the head.
"We go to fancy houses and we go to shit tips," Bruce says. "We are like undertakers. There will always be a need for us. We have strong stomachs. We have to. When a fox dies under the Portakabin of some secondary school you have to grab it, but half of its body might rip in your hand. Then you have to go and scrape up the rest of it. The smell is pungent and sickly. You never forget it. It will get through your mask no problem."
"I did have a fox once: Butch. He was tame. He was our pet. He used to live in our dog run with our Jack Russell terriers. They thought he was a Jack Russell terrier too. Funny, they'd go out to hunt foxes, and work on getting them out of buildings. Because they hated foxes with a venom. But then they'd come home and Butch would be in the dog run and greet them and be all submissive to them. Then, when he was twelve, he got out and when I came back home he'd been shot by the farmer across the road. I was gutted."
Fox hunters admire the ingenuity and hardiness of their prey, but they are never sentimental about them. They regard each vixen they see as a poisonous aggregator, the potential mother of six or seven vulpine terrorists. They reel off sob stories that justify their venom: one is of a Koi carp owner who had spent £15,000 building a 20-foot pool for his prize-winning fish, some of them worth £3,000 each, only to wake up one morning to find the shredded remnants of their heads and guts lying by the poolside; another is of a 96-year-old Welshman who came to Islington after the war to live with his wife whom he had meet when she had been evacuated to the Borders. When, many decades later, she died, he turned their garden into a shrine to her, a tranquil memorial where he could solace himself with memories of the years they had spent together. Then, one night, a family of foxes had wrecked its lawns and flowerbeds. He felt desecrated and defiled.
Urban fox hunters are mercenaries, revenge artists. They act out Londoners' darkest fantasies. City dwellers habitually dream of being Travis Bickle, of finally saying no to the noise, terror and hysteria that threaten to engulf them, by going out, weaponry in hand, to slay the source of their misery. Fox hunters always deny that they are Barbour-jacketed robo-cops or chicken-drumstick-carrying terminators, and talk at great length about the precision training they undertake in order to carry out their commissions safely. None the less, at a period when Londoners often lament the inability of the police to capture yet alone punish robbers and street thieves, the symbolism of the hunters' jobs is unmistakable and, to many, very appealing: search and destroy.
Hunters especially love the occasions when they're called to help out those people they call ‘bleeding heart liberals'. They mean those men and women who for years had shouted their hatred of fox-hunts and muttered sympathy for activists who slashed the tyres and broke the windows of marked pest-control vans. Bruce says he has very little time for the moccasined nobbs and toffs of the Countryside Alliance who took over the streets of London to defend rural hunting because they regard it as a way of life rather than a way of making a living; yet, though he tut tuts and shakes his head, he smiles inwardly when he is called to assess the damage done to the gardens of pro-fox sympathisers, landscaped to the tune of £40,000. The lawns will have been dug up, the irrigation and self-watering systems ripped, the safety lighting easily cleared.
At times like these, the hunter feels, however fleetingly, a bond with the hunted. He sees the fox as a fellow night-traveller. A worthy spar as much as an enemy. A jouster for mastery of the city's nightscapes. A dark tactician who lays up in woods by day, their messy foliage serving as temporary hostels, green rooms before the centre-stage entertainment that ensues after night fall. In response, the hunter turns the imperilled garden into a castle. He needs to: even a ten-foot wall with a buttress holding it up is insufficient defence; foxes are just as agile as cats, and need only to get a grip with one paw to soon be up and over. They can run at speed along fences with 1½-inch rails on top of them, and dig and burrow three feet below them.
I'll never forget the worst fox I ever saw. In its back leg it had bad maggots the size of those you'd get in fish bait shop. They'd got right to the bone in his back leg. It was absolutely rotten. It stunk. The poor thing was limping around. I shot it to save it from a lingering death. I've also shot foxes before now that I keep thinking: ‘He's such an unlucky fox.' One that's had his leg broken badly, or was born with two legs shorter than the other, so that when you see it it looks like a sort of thalidomide fox...
By the time Bruce and his colleagues have set up the bait and armed themselves with their rifles and night-vision binoculars and monoculars, it's already approaching midnight. The furious office workers who decompress at the squash courts and sauna rooms at the sports centre by the golf course have all gone home. Apart from the distant burr of A-road traffic, the night is silent. It's hard to imagine that this former landfill site, now transformed into lunar pastoralia, has become overrun with foxes, or that the foxes are so cocky they have been emerging from the long grass to run after and pinch golf balls that have landed near them.
Bruce drives the Land Rover with his left hand while holding a flash light with his right hand. It's a slow and painful way to navigate the darkness; as night goes on, bolts of carpal-tunnel pain shoot up his arm. He doesn't have a map, and the course is so bumpy that the car nearly topples on to its side many times. Some nights, he recalls, they have fallen into marshy ponds and required tractors to pull them out: "Funny thing was that there were no frogs in the ponds; the foxes had eaten them all."
We keep to the perimeter of the course. The higher skyline vantage points here give us a sense of brief mastery, as if we are African game-rangers looking out across imperial plains. Every few seconds, Bruce blows into his rabbit squealer, an audio-contraption that emits a fake come-on, an insidious serenade designed to encourage wallflower foxes to emerge from their hide-outs, only for them to be felled seconds later by a bullet to the head. But tonight, the foxes don't seem to be responding. Many, Bruce surmises, won't even be on the links; they'll be wandering nearby streets foraging in the bins by bus shelters and the backs of local shops.
Suddenly, amid the blackness, I see two tiny specks of light. Before I can work out what it is or how far away it is, there's a rifle snap. "Did you see that one?" Bruce asks excitedly. "I love it!" Then, pointing to congested trees he estimates are four hundred yards away, he tells his marksmen: "There's three there." A couple of the foxes, perhaps naïve about the risks they face by showing their heads, perhaps starved of food for a week and getting a noseful of the rabbit scent, are moving towards the car. "Take it carefully, Julian," says Bruce. "Lots of time. Let him come off that track. Here he comes." One shot - and the fox is dead. A couple of seconds later, and another one is dead.
The speed of the shootings disorientates me. After spending so long looking for signs of animal life, it seems wrong, or at least peremptory, to put an end to that motion. I feel complicit, as if I'm taking part in a snuff movie. Bruce senses my unease: "The bullet travels at 4200 feet per second. That's three times the speed of sound. They don't even twitch. They're stone dead before they know it. If you hit them in the head, it goes straight through the spinal column. Sometimes it blows them virtually in half."
After a while, we drive to where the dead foxes lie. Bruce and his men, after checking to see if the slain animals are cubs, vixens or dog foxes, do a beauty audit. Some, the steam still coming off their warm skin, are elegant and pretty: "He's got a fair old mask on him." "She's a big fat vixen; got a lovely skin that one." Others, those with poor diets, scabby flesh, and mange creeping up their tails, are not. Age is assessed by peering at their teeth; town foxes, who normally survive only a couple of years, usually have a good set. Those who also have good furs will be skinned. As recently as the early 1980s there used to be 76 tanneries and furriers in London, mostly around Hackney, where fox-skin coats were tanned, made up and sold. Most have disappeared. These days, a decent coat sells at game fairs and country shows for £25 to £30.
Tonight Bruce kills twelve foxes. It's a tidy haul. Enough to suggest that he has a better knowledge of the urban-fox population across London than his scientist critics. As the hours tick by, and repeated circuits of the course yield no more fresh kill, Bruce talks about why he loves his job. Partly, it's an issue of aesthetics. He recalls the unusual shrubs and flowers he has spotted on his nights across London. Changing weather patterns have brought greater varieties of butterflies and moths to the capital. The elephant-hawk moths he saw on the banks of the Thames near Silvertown probably came up on boats from Europe. The technology that he uses allows him to see colours and patterns invisible to everyone else: "You get your own laser show just through looking through the infra-red illuminator. The moths and flying insects look extraordinary. You gaze up at the sky on a clear night and you can see thousands more stars than you could see with the naked eye. It really throws them back at you."
Soon, he starts to rhapsodise about the foxes: "I don't do it for the sport. They're cunning and they're crafty, and they're also very stupid at times, but they have a fascination and glamour. I think they're absolutely lovely, much more nice-looking than the grey squirrels people go on about. Their grace, their ability to adapt to everything, how beautiful they are - they're my favourite animal."