Late one winter’s evening as I was driving home from a long day out watching owls, I noticed something moving by a straw stack. I stopped my car in time to see a fox slinking round the back of the stack.
Dusk was just settling over the snowy landscape, but I pulled over and reached for my rucksack which was already packed full with my cameras.
I crept slowly and carefully towards the straw pile, taking care not to make too much noise as I approached.
As I neared the spot, I could see the fox’s footprints in a gap between the bales. I suspected it had been using this straw stack as a warm hideaway during the day.
I looked slowly round the corner made by the bales, just in time to get another tantalising glimpse of the fox ahead of me, slinking into a small wooded copse. A few seconds later a cock pheasant took flight, calling out as it flew.
I followed the fox prints into the copse. There was a small depression edged by a beautiful pattern of lines in the snow where the pheasant’s wings had raked it as it took flight.
The copse fringed the edge of a canal and as I emerged from the tree canopy I stepped tentatively out on to the towpath.
But there was no sign of the fox. I suspected that I had lost its trail so I scanned the area with my binoculars to see what else I could see. But all was quite apart from a pair of ducks in the canal.
Just as I was about to give up and head back to the car, the fox reappeared on the towpath ahead of me.
It was about a hundred yards away. I stopped in my tracks just as the fox turned and looked at me. It gazed at me briefly in a nonchalant manner before continuing down the bank. Here it cocked its leg to mark out its territory.
As it headed away from me, I quickly got my camera out. I had left my gloves back in my car and my fingers and thumbs were stiff with cold as I grappled with the lens hood.
I looked up just in time to see the fox stop quite suddenly. It stood frozen to the spot; head pointing downwards and ears up. I guessed it was ‘mousing’, as this curious tactic of hunting for creatures deep underneath the snow is known. Although it is more likely it had heard a vole moving under the snow than a mouse.
It repositioned its legs, ready to pounce, its ears twitching as it pinpointed the position of its prey. Then all of a sudden it sprang high up into the air and dove into the snow, front feet first, followed closely by its nose.
For a few moments it paused in this position: its head buried deep in the snow while its thick brush tail wagged from side to side as it hunted.
Then the fox lifted its head back out of the snow, and shook it vigorously. Bits of snow and reed fell from its mouth – it had clearly missed its prey this time.
The fox continued onwards and I followed it on foot as it set out on this night of mischief. I used the adjacent copse as cover to get closer.
Wild country foxes are tricky subjects to approach but there is no harm in trying.
By the time I caught up with the wily creature it was watching a flock of starlings noisily bathing and drinking under a bridge where the water hadn’t frozen.
Stealthily, the fox crossed the bridge, but the birds were far too wise and fast for him. They flew into a nearby willow tree and settled down to roost.
The fox continued on the opposite side of the channel. I ducked back through the copse to keep out of sight as I followed. After 100 yards I crept back through and found the fox on point, looking at the ground, again.
This time it was after a mole. The dark soil of the freshly dug mole hill stood out against the whiteness of the snow.
I stepped forward, but just then a twig snapped beneath my foot and I froze as the fox lifted its head and looked my way. Luckily some movement underground refocused its attention. It paused, repositioned its feet and cocked its head to one side.
By this time it was too dark to take photographs, but I was enjoying watching.
After a tense few minutes, the fox sniffed the molehill, raked over it with its front paw and then, realising that the mole must have gone, cocked its leg peevishly on the molehill. It was as if it was saying: “If I can’t eat you I’ll leave you with this smell instead”.
As the fox trotted off, I decided to try to keep up. But as I stepped forward my foot cracked noisily on an ice puddle hidden under the snow.
The next footstep made the same sound and I was afraid I had scared off the fox.
Sure enough as I reappeared out of the hedge, it had vanished. I could see hundreds of yards in each direction but it had outwitted me.
A silhouette in the distance caught my eye and I checked it out with my binoculars. It was a roe deer browsing. I was out in the open now and the deer was quick to spot me. It quickly pronked away and into some cover.
I turned to head back. My path retraced the fox’s movements. I soon picked up its fresh tracks and as I approached the molehill I caught its unmistakably pungent smell.
I crossed the bridge where the starlings had gone to roost. They were silhouetted against the sky, which by was now lit up with stars.
The temperature was well below freezing and the snow was developing a crust. Imprinted into it with perfect precision was the shape left by the fox’s head where it had pounced for a vole.
Although I had not been able to photograph this fox close up, the experience of watching it as it hunted that snowy night inspired a new exhibition of paintings of wildlife in winter.
These are currently on show at my winter exhibition at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire.
See more of Robert E Fuller’s paintings and photographs at his exhibition ‘Wildlife in Winter: An Artist’s Perspective’ which is open every day until November 26. www.robertefuller.com
Opening times at his Thixendale gallery are weekday 9.30am to 4.30pm; weekends 10.30am to 4.30pm. Free admission.
There will also be the opportunity to see inside Robert Fuller’s studio, where his photographic and video research will be on display.