‘Foxed Unearthed’ published in 2016 provides a richly balanced account of an animal that is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Whether it is in the tabloid press or in nursery rhymes, attitudes to it vary from deep affection to fear suspicion. In Britain, it receives media attention not received by any other animal. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discusses the background to a timely book with Lucy Jones author of ‘Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing' in Modern Britain' published by Elliot & Thompson in London.
How did the idea of a book come about and how long did you work on the book?I was approached by Jennie Condell, publisher of Elliott & Thompson, who had seen my wildlife blog Wildlife Daily and was looking for someone to write a book about foxes. Already fascinated by the fox and how it had been perceived over the centuries and in the modern day, I was immediately interested, pitched how I would go about it and got to work! It took around 8 months to research, write and edit.
How did you go about finding a publisher?I was very lucky that they found me!
The book covers a huge number of topics from history to countryside management. Many of the issues are complex, political and emotionally charged. Were there moments when you felt what you had taken on was too big a task to fit into one book? How did you manage to keep going in those dark moments?I relished it. It was a pleasure to do lots of reading and learning around the subject, particularly in ecology, conservation and the history of how animals have been treated in Britain (often quite galling, to be honest) and the culture of hunting. It was often a challenge to present the closest approximation to the truth around various issues, such as the evidence that the fox suffers in a hunt, or the conflicting studies and arguments around whether culling foxes actually makes a difference to their numbers because they self-regulate their population, but I aimed to approach the subject journalistically and present all sides to allow the reader to make up their own mind. I recall a conversation with the anthropologist Garry Marvin when I was feeling a little frustrated about trying to find ‘the truth’. He said to me, ‘there is no truth, just different interpretations of it.’
I love interviewing scientists and meeting Dawn Scott was a pleasure. They are always so generous with their time and passionate about their research. After years of interviewing bands who don’t particularly like opening up, it’s a real joy! In terms of field trips, I found the day I spent with hunt saboteurs fascinating. It’s a really interesting sub-culture that’s been going since the mid-60s and it was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I enjoyed finding out why they do what they do even when it can be dangerous.
It must be incredibly satisfying to finally have the book out in print and well received by a number of prominent wildlife commentators. If you reflect on how the book has impacted you, do you feel it has changed your outlook on how you see people or conservation issues.It really is; it’s been amazing. I suppose it has given me confidence that the written word can make a difference, however grand that might sound. Many of my messages from readers of the book have expressed how it changed their minds about foxes. They often say, ‘I love foxes now’, or something along those lines. I think it also taught me that it’s always worth acknowledging how differently some people feel to others, and looking at what might be behind that, asking questions and listening. For example, someone who hates foxes in urban areas might seem a bit narrow-minded at first, but there may be a reason behind it: they’ve read loads of scaremongering stories in particular newspapers that paint the fox as a psychotic villain or they’ve heard myths and rumours for years that just aren’t true. I think ecological literacy is so important in changing attitudes towards wildlife and our landscape and the press have a responsibility for that.
I’d have liked to look at how foxes live and are treated in other areas of the world. I’d love to explore and compare the habits and behaviours of the red fox with, for example, the arctic fox and the fennec fox.
For someone whose career began in writing for a music magazine, this book is a remarkable change in direction. How did this come about and what advice would you offer any aspiring nature writers as a lesson from your own transformation?I started my career at The Daily Telegraph, where I worked for four years, following reporting at a local newspaper, so I had a pretty good journalistic training before moving to NME and specialising in music. Over the last few years, I started to realise what a dire state the planet is in and wanted to write more about environment, nature, science and wildlife. I set up a blog - Wildlife Daily - and left NME to write freelance for publications and websites like BBC Earth, the Guardian, TIME, Newsweek and others. I think setting up a blog is a really good way of finding your voice and working out what you want to write about. Also it gives you the opportunity to build a community of people who care about the same thing. Keep notes! It can be a good idea to make notes about the things you see on walks and nature trips and the words you like. I wish I’d kept more notes over the years and I’m more diligent about it these days. It’s a bit obvious but reads loads of nature writers, too, to work out what you like. I’ve got a lot of inspiration over the last couple of years from people like Rebecca Solnit, the late Nan Shepherd and Barry Lopez.
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The images below are not from the book. They illustrate foxes in London. Top three images (c) Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and show a fox that had got through the protective mesh at the London Wetland Centre. The bottom four images are (c) Shehan Silva and show a family of foxes that was raised in a back yard in a suburb of London.