Oliver Rackham, the magisterial historian of the English countryside, has several bees in his bonnet. One them concerns the word “forest”. If you believe Rackham, there’s no necessary connection between “trees” and “forests”. Forests are areas set aside for the hunting of wild game – deer, boar and suchlike – while wooded areas of country are, doh!, woods. Forests are characterised by their ancient laws and royal-appointed officers, while woods feature toadstools, crapping bears, fairy rings and farouche child abusers.
I love Rackham’s writing on the countryside. To read his accounts of woodland management, the structure of field systems and even soil drainage, is to have the godlike sensation that when it’s all tarmaced over and there’s a Tesco Metro where every copse used to be, one could simply reconstruct the whole palimpsest of our biota, using Rackham as a set of instructions. My friend Con has slightly disabused me concerning the omniscience of Rackham. He too is a disciple, and once made a pilgrimage to the great seer of the bucolic at Corpus Christi, his Cambridge college. It transpired that Rackham obviously took his agenda from what he could see from the window of his rooms; and that his masterwork: “The History of the Countryside”, should really be called: “The History of the Bit of Countryside I can See from my Window”.
If I animadvert on Rackham it’s because of what happened to Mr & Mrs Ralph this week. They awoke during the night to the sound of a loud crash echoing through the vastness of Steadman Towers. On arising they found a trail of bite marks and paw prints leading through the elegant chambers and along the marble colonnades. A large, silk-covered ottoman had been reduced to a tatter-medallion, a turd had been deposited in the toilet. Eventually they cornered the interloper in the kitchen. How a fox cub had had the wit to become housetrained after only that very night entering a house for the first time is a source of wonder to us all.
Now, Rackham’s take on foxes is sanguine to say the least; given that he views the two cataclysmic events in the English countryside to have happened during the Iron Age, and then in the late nineteenth century. The first was the clearing of the primary woodland, and the second was the turning over of whatever little spinneys remained to the intensive rearing of game birds. Set beside these awesome reductions in biodiversity, the artificial preservation of the fox in order that it may be hunted stands as an amusing little appendix. And preserved it has been. Rackham’s hunch is that it would have been extinct in the early-modern period were it not such good fun cornering it on horseback, then watching it torn to shreds by doggies.
The irony that the fox was preserved for so long that it managed to adapt to the growing urbanisation of England cannot be stressed enough. Over the last few years, during which this environmental appendix became so inflamed that it poisoned the body politic, it was hilarious to hear the fox-hunting lobby bleat on about how they had to hunt foxes in order to a) keep their numbers down b) keep countryside folks’ numbers up. In essence this was the same as a talking hamster tell you that it was essential he kept running round and round in order to preserve his wheel.
Looked at from the point of view of the parasitic fox, the redcoats were a good survival strategy. However, now that you can’t walk down a London street without seeing an insouciant fox strolling towards you it’s clear that it must be foxes themselves that were behind the whole mad convulsion. While hunting was essential for their survival they happily ripped chickens to pieces and ran amok in the farmyard. But a few years ago a top-flight delegation approached the late Roald Dahl and got him to write “Fantastic Mr Fox” as the first in a string of clever propaganda tricks aimed at ensuring their long-term niche in the human-dominated ecosystem.
Most of the time I feel fairly well disposed to foxes. We often get up in the morning to see two or three of them sunning themselves on the tops of the garden sheds in back of our house. Granted their shit smells dreadful, they rip bin bags open, and their sexual behaviour – even by South London standards – is both violent and rambunctious. Still, I saw no need to have them culled for this until the fox got into Ralph’s house. After all, to follow Rackham on this, why there may be no necessary connection between forests and trees, the prospect of one’s kitchen becoming a game preserve is not a comfortable one. Mark my words, it’ll begin with the odd fox breaking it, but before you know it you’ll be transported to Australia for laying a hand on one of the Queen’s dinosaur-shaped turkey nuggets.