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Basildon was invented in 1948 by the same top-down, statist, efficiently moustachioed politicians that launched the National Health. A rubber stamp, a spade and photograph, and now, two generations later, a town of 100,000 people. But there was one visitor that the pertly aspirant young couples didn’t see coming when they arrived at their new, two-garden starter homes (one at the back, and a trimmable lady’s garden up front). These neat and shiny houses, widely spaced with scrap-stuffed bins — they were paradise for Mr Fox.
Today, foxes have overrun British cities. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, calls them a menace and a pest.
One bit off the finger of a baby boy last year; another mauled the faces of nine-month-old twins in 2010. At least 10,000 are thought to be roaming the capital, with tens of thousands more in other cities.
I’ve come to Basildon because it is, at least for one night, the frontline in the battle against the vulpine scourge. This is the last, flailing, offensive burst after traps, deterrent sprays, “electronic control devices”, chicken wire, scarecrows, prickle strips and chucking stuff out the window have all failed to deter or outfox them. This animal is a byword for cunning and deceitful intelligence. You call Tom Keightley when you’ve all but given up — when you want the bastards dead.
He comes in the night. Keightley operates at the clipped margins of society’s lawns, and the neighbours never know he was there. Meeting him was tricky to arrange: people are no keener to advertise invasive species in their gardens than in their genitals. Councils want nothing to do with him: taxpayers have other priorities than the shooting of photogenic mammals.
He looks, fittingly, like a man who sells death for a living — in this case, a £450 call-out charge, plus £50 per fox. He arrives clad entirely in black, from his thick military boots to the hat I presume is a baseball cap until I feel its hard interior shell and realise is actually a helmet. He carries the rifle - a 12-bore - in a brown and anonymous assassin’s tennis bag.
“It’s illegal to use these bullets in war,” he grunts. “Hollow-point, expanding ammunition: the killing power is huge. The impact knocks the foxes unconscious. They die before they wake up.”
Keightley, a professional pest controller, has an open firearms certificate and is entitled to use it to shoot foxes. Before any job like this, he rings the police to tell them what he’ll be doing. Sometimes they don’t like it, and threaten that they just might come and put a stop to it. But he is licensed and this is legal.
The man with the fox problem is Lee. He’s basking in his hot tub at the appointed hour, and can’t hear us ringing the bell. Finally he answers in a damp dressing gown, smoking a fag. He leads us into his garden, which contains a large plastic cow, his bubbling outdoor bath and a frozen, Smurfy bestiary of garden gnomes in assorted positions.
“The bloody things have been chewing their way through the cables of my hot tub,” says Lee, referring to the foxes, not the gnomes.
“Yes,” says Tom the gun. “They’re always chewing things, like puppies.”
Keightley leads me round the garden, searching for foxy evidence. He says the animals are probably hiding under the hot tub decking. They dig their dens or earths there, dragging into them things they’ve found and might eat later: a chicken carcass, a baby’s filled nappy, a live mouse for their kits to torture. This is caching season, in which they shore up food against the predations of winter.
Come January, they will begin mating, and their screeches and cries will echo round the freezing streets. Flaccid dog foxes penetrate the vixens with their penile bone, then grow a real boner that expands into the vagina, locking the lovers together. There are non-Attenborough, leg-crossing internet videos of foxes being interrupted during mating.
At the back of the garden runs a fence, and underneath it are half a dozen brown-black turds, heaped in threes, looking precisely like cigars.
“The woman next door keeps feeding the foxes,” mutters Lee. “She won’t listen. She doesn’t have to deal with the problem — the noise, the mess.”
Keightley produces a tin of supermarket dog food. “They like the cheap stuff best,” he says. He opens it and decants the repulsive, reconstituted meat paste over the lawn, smearing it in with his boots. He rigs a couple of builder’s lights to an extension cable and blazes them across the grass. We troop upstairs to a window overlooking the garden while darkness settles and the house lights are extinguished. Then we stand at the black window, scanning the hunched, expectant lawn.
After half an hour, the fox appears, seemingly from nowhere. I step back a little too fast, and he looks up, freezes, glares at me from flaming, predatory slits. Keightley is already lifting the rifle into place. I meet the creature’s gaze and he turns, runs silently under the gate.
“He’ll be back before long,” says Keightley.
This is how the gunman spends his nights: silent, patient, aching in the cold, in the rain, to kill. We sustain a whispered conversation about the foxes he has shot, about the stingy rich of north London, the furtive, midnight commissions in schools, where he shoots, unobserved, from car windows.
Rain begins to spatter: in drips at first, then a deluge. The lights catch it driving against the ghostly, ridiculous gnomes. We swig tea like squaddies, talk about death and guns. Keightley describes a time he had to shoot some wild boar that were digging up a garden in Sussex.
A handful had escaped from a farm and set up a colony in the forest. “I liked them,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to kill the last one.” And it seems strange, for a moment, this cold, detached, human need to slaughter animals for our own convenience.
The fox returns, and in an instant, the atmosphere switches from wary observation to the electric focus of the hunt. I shrink into the shadows; the animal pokes his nose through the bottom of the gate, smelling the food. He walks, catlike, along the wet bricks lining the flowerbed, pauses and drops onto the lawn. As he bends his head towards the food: doomf. Sudden and subdued. The fox falls like a gravestone. His mouth opens and closes; one leg moves as if trying to run.
Hunched behind the gun, Keightley whispers without emotion: “We need to be sure he’s dead. He might be unconscious. If he wakes up now, he could run away, and he’d be gone in seconds.”
But the beast stops moving after 10 seconds. Keightley and I move down, and I crouch beside the animal in the cold, lashing rain. The fox’s eyes and mouth are still open, glinting under the spotlights, baring white canines. I can’t see any wound, and feel a primal panic: that he is about to spin up, twist towards me, snarling and biting. It’s only when I look behind him, see the blood dripping from the top of his skull, the spatter of bone and brain on the grass, that I know he’s dead. Keightley poses for photographs without smiling.
An hour later, he shoots a second fox, a vixen, then calls it a night at 1.30am. Lee, £550 down now, seems satisfied that his problem has been dealt with. Nobody mentions that a new skulk of foxes will likely move under his decking within days. Their populations are self-sustaining. In the mid-1990s, Bristol’s foxes suffered an epidemic of mange that killed 96 per cent of them in two years. They rebounded to their original numbers before the millennium.
They are a pest to many people, these animals: dropping dung, digging gardens, killing pets, spreading disease. Trapping them is probably illegal. Infecting them with a pathogen similar to myxomatosis would be ethically tricky and likely result in dodgy collateral damage. Hiring people like Keightley is expensive, controversial and ridden with dangers in built-up areas. Foxes “relocated” to the countryside by well-wishers quickly return. There is, it seems, nothing we can do.
However. Do you live in a city? How many rats have you seen recently? The urban fox is one of their most important predators. Foxes may be vectors of disease, but when did you last hear of a Briton catching rabies? Any vet will tell you that a cat scratch is far more likely to give you a serious infection. Whatever the alarmist headlines, British foxes pose little threat to humans. Our beloved dogs hospitalise 6,000 people every year.
“Every fox job I’ve done,” says Keightley, “a neighbour was leaving out scraps. Then they don’t respect or fear humans, and you get all the other problems. If we left foxes alone, they would never endanger us.”
People who think these animals are cute forget — or are in denial — that they’re also wild animals. Their sneaky resemblance to dogs is a genetic coincidence, not a guide to their behaviour. If a fox is eating from your fingers, it’s only because that’s less trouble than going for the hand. By all means, if you want, hire a man like Keightley to shoot your foxes. Buy yourself a few days’ peace before the next one skulks into your life. Unlike the mice poisoned beneath your floorboards, foxes don’t suffer when the bullet strikes. But whatever you try, they will return. It might be easier to learn to live with them.
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