Thinking Foxy Thoughts

By Bernie Bell

There aren’t any foxes in Orkney.  I’ve wondered why, and thought it’s probably because they didn’t get here after the Ice Age – the waters rose, and that was that.  Like there aren’t any snakes in Ireland – one of those things. 

There’s a song which says that St. Patrick “Gave the snakes and toads a twist and banished them forever”, but I don’t think that’s meant to be taken seriously!

Then, on the Orkney Wildlife Facebook page,  I saw that Andy Mitchell had asked Martin Carruthers ( UHI archaeologist) about foxes in Orkney, to be told that there is evidence of their existence until the early Iron Age then they appear to have…………. disappeared!

I was even more interested after reading this – where was the evidence found?  And, why did they disappear?  It seems unlikely that the people of the Iron Age would embark on an eradication programme – they had enough to do.

Maybe, prior to that time,  just individual troublesome foxes were dealt with? 

In Ireland, one of my cousins is very good at tracking and hunting. He has two stuffed Woodcock on his wall, which he ‘took with a left and a right’, which he is very proud of.  I’m not in favour of hunting, but he is a good shot and I can see that can be a good thing at times as it means a clean death.  If there is a particularly troublesome fox in the Parish, he’s paid to track it and kill it – one clean shot in the head.

Maybe the early farmers employed a similar approach to dealing with individual foxes?  So, why, from the early Iron Age, did they disappear from Orkney?  And maybe the other question is – how did they come to be here in the first place?

Taking it that they weren’t here naturally – just as a supposition – working through some possibilities – might they have been brought here by people, maybe folk coming on pilgrimage to the Ness of Brodgar  or other sites of religious significance?

People do like foxes, especially cubs.  Farmers, or other folk who keep fowls, don’t like them, but my impression is that the general public have a soft spot for them – they are so cute, and clever, and people sometimes adopt orphan cubs as pets.  A dubious practice in my view – they are wild things and wild things rarely stop being so, completely – thank goodness!

Taking off on a flight of fancy – maybe the time of year when there are fox cubs, chimed with the time of year for pilgrimage?  Maybe some  folk brought cubs with them to Orkney when on pilgrimage?  Maybe the fox had a significance to some groups of people in the Neolithic, as with Eagles at the Eagle Cairn  and dogs at Cuween Cairn

Maybe they were the totem animal for a group of early visitors, who brought their totem with them?

Maybe foxes, or cubs, were brought to Orkney by people, then escaped and went feral, but it didn’t matter, initially. Then, maybe they started to be a nuisance, and, by the early Iron Age, needed to be dealt with. 

If there wasn’t a large population of foxes, maybe a concerted effort was then made to clear Orkney of them?  Maybe.

It also occurred to me that the Iron Age folk might have liked the fox pelts to wear, or place in their homes. Excavations at The Cairns broch in South Ronaldsay , show that they did like adornment and colour.  I can picture someone, maybe at The Cairns, male or female, with a russet pelt draped over one shoulder, complementing the beads and the ‘bling’. It could look very appealing, or be a sign of status? They were keen on that too – signs of status.

The lack of foxes is a gift to folk who keep fowls here, who can let them roam free.  No foxes means that there is less ‘clearing up’ of carrion, but the crows work on that.  I’m not aware that the people of Orkney miss having foxes, but I do wonder – what happened?  And I wonder what archaeologists make of it? I wonder where the remains of those early foxes were found? And I wonder what tales and myths the ancient folk wove around them, as there are today – the cunning fox.

And then I thought – there aren’t any badgers either – did there used to be?   Maybe I should ask Martin Carruthers about that one, too!

Fox in a London garden – pic by Sally Case

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