Arrrrgggggghhhh. Take a deep breath, stay calm. My heart is racing. I’m shaking. Am I completely, completely bonkers? Do I REALLY want to do this? What AM I thinking?
Wandering the streets of London. At night. Alone. Thousands of pounds worth of electrical equipment under my arm. Holding bin bags and dog food.
It’s 3am. Shivering, I’m crouched behind a tree in a north london street. Watching a pile of rubbish fluttering next to a dustbin and hoping I’ve not been spotted.
Night-time urban fox photography combines the thrill and excitement of an African Safari, requires the sensitivity and field-craft of an aboriginal hunter and skill of a vogue photo shoot.
A car drives past. Stops. Reverses. The car is next to my camera, which is ‘hidden’ under a pile of bin bags. Drug pushers? A drive-by shooting? My mind races, now faster than my heart. Skittish, I jump up, terrifying the two young guys in the car, grab my camera and leg it. My first night isn’t a great success.
This time I’ve done my research. A knife? No. Tear-gas? Ridiculous. A stinky, blary, personal alarm that sprays my assailant with fluorescent red dye? Perfect.
I’ve tracked down a fox den, found a concealed hiding place (away from the road) and after hours of practice, I have my camera set up with a remote trigger. I’m ready to go – a coiled spring. Less bouncy after three more hours of being ready. A fox. My first fox. Such a beauty. I slow my breathing. It’s moving to my ‘designated spot’. The ‘X’ on the floor where I’ve pre-focused, ensured is in shadow so the flash balances the street lights, freezes the motion of the fox and takes the perfect shot. In theory. The fox tenses. It’s heard the person that I’m now aware of. He’s standing close to me. At 4:30 in the morning. Next to the church. Staring in my direction. My finger is twitching on my personal alarm. The fox and I are ready to pounce – or run. He steps towards me. Slowly, carefully, I’m taking out my alarm, ready to fire. An orange blur as he drops his cig to the floor and returns to the church. Damn, I’ve very nearly just blinded a priest.
My fox is back. Flash, flash, flash. Good grief, I’ve got a clear fox shot. That is amazing. That is incredible. Flustered I stumble backwards. Fall on my hand. My brain buzzing with the excitement, exhilaration. I can’t believe it’s worked! I can’t believe I got a shot. I start to calm down. The buzzing continues. A slight odour. My hand feels sticky. What IS that buzzing? The fox has long gone. Odd. That smell. My excitement? Bewildered I take the personal alarm out of my pocket and stare at it. Red spray going all over my hand, my jacket, my face. I think I’ll claim day two as a ‘partial’ success.
It’s taken 5 long days and LOTS of scrubbing for the odour and red dye to go. Or maybe I’m now just used to the smell.
For the last 3 nights I’ve got into a routine. Out of my house and crouched down by 9pm and back home ‘ready’ for work by 6am… I’m absolutely exhausted. I’ve also started up a few unusual friendships with local dog walkers. The first after I’d jumped up and rushed towards his car at 2:30am because he’d inadvertently parked next to my camera – and after he calmed from this mild trauma – I variously explained that I was a council street-warden, then an animal activist and finally a muppet photographer. I’m not sure he believed any of my stories. Another as, oblivious, he walked directly towards me while I was hiding at the base of a tree – I later find out his dog’s favourite peeing spot – and decide it’s best that I make myself known before he sets his dog on me or has a heart attack. Each night we share stories on fox-spots, ‘dog hygiene’ tips and of course the weather.
And as I get familiar with the night and fox routines I’m getting better.
My initial panic has turned to tranquility. What was once a terrifying trip through my own neighbourhood has become an exciting exploration of the wildlife and people that inhabit my streets when I used to sleep. Vermin to some, messy disruptive intruders to others, for me the fox is particularly beautiful when set under the orange glow of street lighting against striking buildings.
And as with all wildlife photography I’ve found that patience, good light and lots of luck are key to a good photo. In this very unusual night-time world my own personal adventure and education continues.
While we march to ensure a ban on fox hunting in the countryside we shouldn’t forget about the daily poisoning and trapping of fox in our cities.