With the growth in recent years of remote control, camera traps and also an increase in their very numbers here in the UK, urban fox images of an amazing standard are regularly being produced by the likes of Jamie Hall, Sam Hobson and Mark Smith.
Taking advantage of the benefits of an urban setting as opposed to a purely rural one is not the sole domain of foxes here in the UK though and when this time last year I headed to Churchill, a small town in northern Manitoba in Canada, foxes were equally as prevalent there. The big difference though is that the winter temperatures are considerably lower (it reached minus 35 degrees celsius during the week that we were there) so snow, ice and freezing winds were very much the norm that they have to cope with there.
The red foxes here are among the most northerly in the world in terms of latitude, and have all the same clever survival characteristics of their more southerly relatives here. Churchill is the far north point of the Hudson Bay Railway (that and planes its only access as there are no roads into the area, only a few local ones) and aside from its role as a polar bear tourist magnet at this time of the year, it’s port is one of the main hubs for Canadian wheat to make its way to Europe. The last ships had sailed before winter froze the bay, but the area around the docks offered shelter in the form of buildings and general industrial materials piled up making great windbreaks and therefore a magnet for foxes to head for to settle down in the short daytime hours.
Even the container cars for the trains parked up for the season seemed to be a draw for them in terms of potential shelter as this one seemed to be assessing.
Once a suitable spot had been found out of the wind it was then a question of settling down for as good a rest as possible – always prepared though to check out any photographers in the vicinity mind!
The hours of darkness would tend to see them head to the nearby houses and hotels of the town itself in search of any potential throwaways to supplement the general scavenging and meagre hunting of these winter months. It helped though to know that this was their regular morning hangout though as when some stunning morning light was on offer it made it an obvious place to head for.
There are two other varieties of red fox to be found in the area – the very rare silver fox and considerably darker cross fox, this latter getting it’s name from a dark line or stripe running down its back which intersects with another running across the shoulders and even down the front legs forming a cross on its back. Biologically these are in fact the same species but talk to locals who have been here for generations and they will treat them as quite distinctive based on the fact that when the fur trade was at its peak there was more value in a cross fox pelt than that of a pure red fox. Our lodge owner could even tell us the current values of all the fox types today, but the business is nowhere near its peak of the late nineteenth century when around 4500 cross fox pelts alone were exported through the Hudson Bay Company.
The industrial areas proved the best place to find one of these incredibly beautiful mammals on a couple of mornings: I particularly enjoyed using the buildings and general setting, it’s industrial nature softened by the snow and frost of the winter conditions to give a real sense of place.
Mind you he looked equally as stunning on a pink dawn morning in just the frosty grasses!
The other species of fox to be found in the area though was the even prettier arctic fox, and this was a real bonus due solely to it having been an extra good summer as far as lemming numbers concerned so above average numbers of youngsters had made it through to have their resourcefulness tested through the winter months.
These are energy-laden mammals who seem like clockwork toys on speed as they bounce energetically around all the time, and I have photographed young cubs and wily adults before but only during the summer months where they grey and browny-grey fur gives them quite a ragged look in my opinion. In their white winter coats though alongside their hazel brown eyes they have to be one of the most stunning mammals.
We had come across them out on the tundra when looking for polar bears (this fellow was really hunkered down for what was a particularly miserable day), but the real hotspot for them seemed to be a caged area for food refuse round the back of one of the town’s hotels! It was an area surrounded by plenty of open spaces – presumably a park in the summer months; just a snowy field surrounded by buildings at this time of year.
Throughout the day individuals would trot their way across between the buildings, checking out the cage and also in and around all the other buildings, constantly alert and aware as their pelt is even higher in value apparently although ironically hunting them in the town is not allowed – maybe another reason for them to be attracted to it at this time of day!
This final portrait hopefully conveys that stunning beauty I referred to earlier!
Churchill might not be a location that first comes to mind when thinking about urban images of winter foxes but it certainly proved to be so last winter: reflecting and processing the images some 12 months later the challenges of frost-bitten blistered fingers when working with the shorter lenses on the ground are fortunately a dim and distant memory too!