Recent threads on fox habits have prompted me to write the following, and whilst not claiming it to be a definitive portrayal of the Highland fox some might find it of interest.
Foxes like their canine cousins tie after mating, those that have observed the act say they can remain tied for a considerable length of time.
I have never seen a pair of foxes tied and can only presume that is what has taken place when following the double line of tracks I have come upon a trampled area in the snow.
The gestation period of a vixen is ten days shorter than that of a domestic dog at 52 to 53 days.
There is some variation in the birth dates of fox cubs, and location plays a part, at this altitude cubing is normally around mid April, a full two or three weeks later than on the low ground,and in the south cubing may even be earlier,what is known is that the vixen is usually to be found in the den with the cubs for the first ten days of their lives.
The stalker or keeper will ideally try to time his visit to the den to coincide with the period when she is still in residence, if she is out it means sitting out at at night waiting for her to come in but if he is to early and visits the den before she has taken up residence she will more than likely decide to cub elsewhere and he may never find her.
All things considered its better to err slightly on the late side,in this area stalkers and keepers will start inspecting dens around about the 20th of April.
Late April is also the time when hill sheep begin lambing and provide a ready food supply to feed a litter of cubs.
Lambs may not be a foxes first choice of food in fact on the low ground where foxes have more options available to them its not unknown for a litter of cubs to be raised in close proximity to lambs, without the shepherd suffering losses.
Here in these high places a fox may live very well be supplementing what it manages to catch with the carrion it finds, this however will prove woefully inadequate when it comes to rearing a litter of cubs.
In these upland places where there is a shortage of food for the growing fox family the threat to lambs is very real.
Highland stalkers and keepers will turn their attention to dealing with fox dens in April and will hopefully have the situation under control, before the vixen starts weaning her cubs onto solid food when lambs would come under threat, although some losses are almost inevitable.
These days terriers are used for this work, in the past many foxes were trapped at their dens with gin traps, while gin's were banned in the 1950s they could still be legally used in Scotland for foxes and otters until the 1970s.
When an occupied den is found and the terrier entered, the vixen will normally bolt and is shot as she does so , the terrier should then dispatch any cubs,though some may find this distasteful, its certainly more humane than the gin trap was.
There are times when a vixen will refuse to bolt,maybe because her escape route is blocked by the terrier, this is especially likely to happen in a single hole,there are two types of den , the type of den where the cubs are born and stay until they are weaned, and the cubbing holes these will often be a single mouthed enlarged rabbit hole, where the cubs are born but which they will soon out grow,the vixen will then move them probably to some rocky cairn on the high ground.
When a vixen will not bolt its worth removing the terrier and tethering it some distance away, whilst keeping a vigilant watch on the den, the vixen will usually bolt sometimes immediately on removing the terrier sometimes after some considerable time.
Once the vixen and cubs have been accounted for that leaves the dog fox to be dealt with this means waiting out at night sometimes the stalker or keeper will get lucky and get him before dark, sometimes having to wait all night not getting a shot until the half light of dawn, having an assistant to work the light is of course a big help, but in these economic climes more and more stalkers and keepers are single handed, and while neighbours will often work together at den time, the single handed man can sometimes be left to his own devises, its possible to make a tripod and mount so that a lamp can be used on your own, and modern inventions such as scope mounted lights and night vision equipment have been a boon for the stalker or keeper forced to work on his own, things have come a long way from the days when sitting out at a den meant lugging a car battery up, the hill.
If the stalker/keeper has not been lucky enough to find the den when the cubs were young and the vixen still in residence he will need to sit out and wait for them both, as the cubs become older the bond between them and the parents appears to become stronger,both dog and vixen will make determined attempts to approach the den even though they are aware of the human presence.
One thing in the stalker/keepers favour is that foxes traditionally use the same dens generation after generation, this does not mean that new dens are never opened up nor that existing dens are used every year,sometimes a den will go unused for several years before being brought into use again.
The stalker/keeper will attend to all known dens on his ground first, only after he has dealt with them will he look for new dens and that will largely depend on whether there have been reports of missing lambs.
The stalker/keeper will go round his dens for a second time a month or so later as its possible that a vixen that has been disturbed elsewhere may move her brood in.
Part two to follow.