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Foxes in the Smog (A story of foxes in Gledhow Valley)

The following real-life story is based on a book of the same name by Sue Murray, and has been reproduced with her permission.

People call me a townie, and that's what I am. I've adopted the town to live in and to work in, and the town is where my story happens. But I grew up in a village on the outskirts of Leeds, in a cottage that was within walking distance of my grandparents' farm. I don't remember seeing any foxes then, and my first sighting of a live one was in Gledhow Woods way back in 1978.

When you see a wild fox for the first time, it's like magic. One golden spring evening I was watching Coronation Street when flickers of the evening sun drew my gaze to the scene beyond the window, where I felt sure there was a change in the woodland tapestry. Something was different and it took a while to make out what it was, then I could just see a small, pointy, russet-coloured thing against the backdrop of foresty greens and greys. Just for a second I thought it was a dog, but no dog could keep as still as that. Stiller than still it crouched, the fox. Still as only a wild animal tuning its ears, its eyes, every fine whisker of its body to its environment, can be. And then it was gone. At the foot of the massive oak tree, fronds of bracken vibrating in the soft evening breeze hid the space where the fox had been. I grabbed the field glasses but it was too late, the fox was well away. Read, respond, and survive - the fox had done all of that in the time it took me, a mere human, to believe my eyes! Who needs television when you've got a wonderful wilderness on your doorstep? There was a magpie strutting on the grass now, and a cat stalking it. I scanned the wood until the sun went down and dusk darkened into night, but didn't see any more foxes.

From then on I searched the woodland every dawn, every dusk, for foxes. I sat for hours squirrel-watching too, and bird watching. I felt so happy and privileged to be living in such a green and pleasant nook. I didn't know then how that first sighting of a real, live fox would change things.

In those days I was a single parent with a small daughter, a cat, Lucy, and two dogs, Bonny and Kim. Our school run entailed a long walk from the well house end of Gledhow Woods to the gateposts near the Hall, and early one morning we were passing the foxes' earth above the well house, when my nose caught a twang of foxy scent hanging in the damp morning air. As it was spring I thought there might be cubs under the rocky outcrop, and decided to see if I could take a photograph.

Next day's dawn found me hiding near the rocks, my face fanned by a gentle breeze. Minutes dragged by but I kept quiet and still, hoping the crow family aloft in the tall tree wouldn't notice me. Crows are very protective of their young, and they were likely to set up a racket if they felt threatened. At last, three russet-coated cubs came out, and a vixen, lean and misshapen from her cub rearing, followed. The young ones rough and tumbled on the grassy plateau, their foxy world spring-fresh and full of promise. When they were all played out, the threesome relaxed, basking with their mother in the early morning sunlight. What a picture! Raising my camera I began to fix them in the viewfinder, and my finger searched for the shoot button. But I wasn't quiet enough… "Kraar! Kraarr! Krarrr!" warned the crows, and the fox family streaked under the rock! I nearly jumped out of my skin, and the camera went bump, bump, bump, down the rocks.

Walking home along the top path I felt so lucky to have seen the shy young animals playing. I didn't know if anybody else knew about them, and I hoped I would see them again.

Later that year, when the trees were bare and the weather filthy, I was on my way home with Bonny and Kim. Because the weather was so bad I'd chickened out on the wood in favour of a steady walk along Gledhow Valley, but the quickest way home was through the wood and so we climbed upwards from the road. Home lay at the very top of the slope and it was just possible to see the backs of the houses on Ridgeway through a drab curtain of brown smog. We were about halfway when the shrill bark of a dog cut through the thick air. Another dog joined in, tuning its voice to outdo the excitement of the first. Kim and Bonny pricked up their ears and I listened hard - the barking came from ahead of us, from the big pile of rocks above the well house where my fox family lived. Not expecting to see anybody else in the woods in this weather, I just wanted to get home where it was warm and dry, but I was unsure now whether to go on upwards, or back down to the road and walk round. Anxious not to attract attention, I tried to gather up the dogs using hand signals, tapping my leg to bring them to me. Kim came obediently but Bonny trotted past, and I'd no choice then but to trail her. She led me up to the rocky earths and as I got near, I could see two rough-coated terriers hitched to a tree stump, straining at their leashes. They pulled towards a place higher up where a heavy-built man lay flat on his stomach, his head thrust between the gnarled roots of a hawthorn tree that barred a cavity beneath an overhanging rock. Just below him, a young man in a waxed coat stood on a flat stone slab. He was untangling a pair of dog leads and a third youth crouched at the foot of the mound, busy unravelling a bundle of dark netting.

I smelled danger and my thoughts flew to the fox family. Whatever was happening here was not good. I knew that terriers like these were used in the countryside to fight foxes underground, though I'd never have expected this to go on in a city park. It was unbelievable, the sort of scene where you want to pinch yourself to see if you're dreaming. I did, and I wasn't. I didn't know what to do. I was alone in Gledhow Woods with a gang of animal killers and their rough, tough little dogs! I worried about the foxes under the rocks, but I had my own dogs to think about too.

Bonny's neck fur bristled as I clipped on the lead, and we gave the terriers a wide berth. The dog-lead man was first to notice me and he alerted the others. The one lying down clambered to his feet, sending a small shower of stones down the mound. Tough looking and weather beaten, the trio looked like they shared a mutual capacity for trouble. They all stared daggers at me as if I'd no right to be there, and I felt like an interloper.

The terriers were still kicking up a fuss, their stiff little bodies quivering with fury. But it wasn't us they were barking at, it was something in the hole under the rock. Kim and Bonny looked tense, alert, but they were unusually quiet, and it was as if they didn't understand the terriers' language. I had to say something, I couldn't just walk past. The men told me they were doing pest control because people nearby had complained about foxes. I felt uneasy hearing this, but they said the Council had sent them, and I couldn't argue. It didn't sound right though, and on making enquiries later, nobody had complained about foxes in the wood.

That was the start of what turned out to be a 15-year campaign to rid the woods of terrier men. The Police, the RSPCA and the Council tossed the issue between them, the main excuse for lack of action being "it's not illegal".

Terrier gangs kept raiding the rocky earth and their early morning visits fell into a pattern, bank holidays being the worst times. They were very bold, obstructing the pathway, intimidating people who tried to walk past. My next encounter with a terrier gang was worse than the first. They swore and threatened to kill my cat. I don't know how they knew I had a cat. Perhaps it was guesswork, or perhaps, knowing I was trying to stop them, they'd been keeping an eye on me at home. Without any backup from the authorities I was powerless to protect my own animals from them, and I felt vulnerable out there alone in the woods.

I talked about the foxes and their predators in Gledhow Woods to dog walkers and neighbours, and I listened to their stories. A lady from the Brackenwoods mentioned that her friend, who lived in a high rise that towered over the trees had been looking down from her window when she saw a scruffy-looking gang of men with terriers dragging a fox from the banking. She went down to ask the men what they were doing, and the answer was that tenants had complained to the council that foxes were raiding their dustbins, and they'd got to get rid of them.

So I phoned the council's pest control people and found that the council hadn't had any complaints about foxes raiding dustbins. As I suspected, "the council sent us" was nothing more than an excuse for butchering foxes. I started telling people to make sure word got around, and it was always a mystery why they got away with the "pest control" excuse. One man ranted on about the need to control foxes which, he was convinced, would breed and over-run the district if they were not killed! It seemed to be his mission in life to bully me round to his way of thinking. The idea of cruelty seemed not to come into it. How could you be cruel to a fox? Despite well-known biologists promoting the fox as a worthy animal, the fox wasn't recognised in law. To some people, the fox was a non-creature, not capable of feeling pain or fear.

Whenever terrier men came to the earths, I rang the Police, the RSPCA and the Council even through I got passed from one to the other. The terrier men, they said, were not breaking any law, and all the authorities made me feel as if I was wasting their time.

Months passed, and on balmy summer evenings four young foxes crept out of the undergrowth and slunk, hesitant yet purposeful, towards scraps put out for them (note 1). They kept a watchful eye on Lucy the cat while she, self-styled guardian of the foxes' food, fixed them with her green-eyed gaze. When the leading fox ate a morsel this was the signal for the others to advance, but woe betide any cub that snatched from his or her sibling, because needle-sharp teeth decided ownership! The foxes weren't at all snappy towards Lucy or me, and they even learned to take titbits from my fingers.

One morning I nipped out as usual with Bonny and Kim. Overnight rain made the clearing squelchy to plod through but the dogs didn't mind. They romped and wrestled, play fighting, getting themselves into a soggy muddy mess, and I lingered awhile on the path, teasing them with sticks. But when I got to the earths the ground all around was scuffled, one of the holes was blocked with stones, and worse, sticks strewn around held traces of wet fox fur. My friendly foxes had gone the way of their predecessors, worried by terriers underground, netted, and brutally killed by a sick band of humans.

Fighting back tears of sorrow and rage, I cleared the hole and tidied up, setting free the fox fur to blow away on the breeze. I blamed myself, though I could not have known on that last evening that within hours the foxes would be fighting for their lives. And even if I had known, I'd have been powerless to save them alone. Then I burnt a silent prayer into the rocks, stamped it into the earth beneath my feet and hurled it into the skies above, asking the spirits of the wood to show me the way to keep hunters away so that the foxes might live in peace.

Miraculously, my prayer was answered, though it took many years. The Police, the RSPCA and the Council always treated my phone calls as isolated incidents, but a run-in with a terrier gang in 1987 made me suspicious that this killing of urban foxes happened in other places as well as Gledhow Woods. The Yorkshire Evening Post printed my story, my telephone hardly stopped ringing with calls from people who were concerned about their local foxes, and I began to collect a dossier of hunting on council land in Leeds. As well as terrier work, coursing, trapping, snaring, poisoning, all manner of horrible deaths were being inflicted on foxes on land that we, the taxpayers, paid for. The YEP article was seen, quite by chance, by somebody who knew that the council had recently put through a ban on hunting. We joined forces and set out to discover why a gang of men who had been caught killing foxes got off scott free. After many months of hard work by the council's legal department, the ban was found to lack teeth - what was needed, they told me, was a byelaw under which to prosecute offenders.

With the help of people who'd phoned in, I was able to put forward strong evidence for such a byelaw. A campaign was launched in the YEP and it was supported by Councillor Bernard Atha and many Leeds City Councillors, MPs Fatchett, Rees, Healey and Battle, Michael Clegg, the naturalist and broadcaster, and many other concerned people. The Home Office was petitioned, and ever since 16th May 1994, it has been illegal to intentionally kill, injure, take or disturb any animal or fish, or engage in hunting, shooting or fishing, or the setting of traps or nets, or the laying of snares (note 2). Not just in Gledhow Woods, but in most council parks, woodlands and playing fields.

Who would have thought that that first, magical sighting of a wild fox in Gledhow Woods would lead to a law that potentially benefited wild animals on council land all over Leeds! I don't know whether anyone has been prosecuted under this byelaw - can anybody tell me?

Sue can be contacted by post at PO Box 102, Leeds LS8 4XT, or you can contact us via e-mail and we will pass information on.


1) I now know better than to lay food out for foxes. It's not only unsightly and messy for people, but a nuisance for cat owners. Foxes don't need that kind of help, and I wish people wouldn't do it.

2) The byelaw does not prohibit any fishing that may be authorised by the Council.

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