Blog Tour: Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones

Cold, delicately as the dark snow

A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;

[…]

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,

Brilliantly, concentratedly,

Coming about its own business

~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)

Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.

The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”

Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.

The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.

I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt the book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.

At the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. Photo by Chris Foster.

This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it may be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.

Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.


To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:

& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).

 

15 responses

  1. Actually, despite your reservations, you’ve sold this to me. I’ll look out for it.

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    1. Great! I think you’ll like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s review of this too and it seems a good and fair, balanced book; it’s interesting that you found some chapters a bit long or repetitive. It does win gorgeous cover of the decade, whether I want to read it or not!

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    1. I glanced at a few of the other blog tour reviews and was pleased to see that they’re overwhelmingly positive — makes me feel less guilty about being somewhat negative in mine! I expected to be more engaged with the subject matter than I was.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    Enjoyable. Nice photo, Chris!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s all captive animals there, so it’s sort of a cheat and not the same as photographing them in the wild (I’m unclear on whether it’s a rehab center or a breeding program or what). Still a lovely photo, though 🙂

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  4. It is a lovely photo 🙂 And a good review. I’ve read reviews elsewhere too and feel that I have a good impression of the book now. I loved the extract in Melissa Harrison’s anthology, and I love The Thought Fox – thank you for including that. But I’m not sure I’ll be reading the book; it sounds just too long. The novels you’ve suggested are interesting. Midwinter was already one I hope I might get to read. Both that one and The Many Selves of Katherine North put me in mind of Lady Into Fox which I read last year expecting to dislike intensely. Instead, I found myself somewhat charmed by it 🙂

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    1. I feel like it’s the sort of topic I would have been interested enough to read a very long article about (in the Guardian or British Wildlife or wherever), but not a whole book.

      Lady into Fox sounds fascinating! A prizewinner, and nice and short, too 😉 I’ve just downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read it as part of my aim to read a prizewinner from every year since prizes were first awarded. (Quite a long way to go on this!) I’d love to know what you think of it. It has stayed with me enough that I’d rather like a copy of the story myself: in print and complete with the woodcuts that originally illustrated it.

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  5. An extra treat for all you fox lovers. This is a live performance of The Bookshop Band’s song about Ned Beauman’s Glow, “We Are the Foxes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiOwZLSAb7s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First time I’ve heard of this band. What a brilliant idea! Thanks for the link, Rebecca 🙂

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      1. They’re one of my favourites. They started out at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, custom-writing songs for author events. More recently they’ve been touring and releasing all their book-themed songs in a series of 10 albums. Try to see them if they ever make it to your part of the country!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It looks like they’ll be appearing very close to us this summer. How exciting!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] may be interested in this animal-themed Faber Social event, also featuring Lucy Jones, author of Foxes Unearthed. I’ll be in America at the time or else I surely would have […]

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  7. […] longwinded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just […]

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