Wildlife photographers spend most of their time frustrated. I’ve been photographing urban foxes for five years, mostly in the same allotment near my home in London. Many hundreds of hours, thousands of shots, all kinds of trials and errors with flashes, remote triggers and camera traps – getting good shots is a result of belligerent bloody-minded perseverance and patience. Having said that, this was a complete grab shot and almost total luck.
I was on my knees taking a picture of another fox in the distance and heard a scramble behind me. I turned around to see the vixen with its legs splayed out like that, on the water trough. I’ve never seen a fox drinking like that before – that’s more like how giraffes drink! I only had time to take three frames before she jumped down. The first was out of focus, the second one her head was turned, but the third she was looking directly at me, and the tongue was down and those amber eyes are just so beautiful. It was a brilliant moment of luck and execution. I say it was luck – you make your own luck by being there so often.
My fox project began almost by chance, back in 2016. My partner and I were out for a walk one evening. Rounding a corner where we’d never been before was a dead end with a strip of green in the middle of two rows of Victorian terraces. On the grass were two foxes literally doing the foxtrot – that’s where the name comes from. They were up on their haunches, fighting. I ran home to get my cameras but they had, of course, finished scrapping by the time I got back. I began returning every evening to photograph the foxes that were always in the streets. They were quite brave and I was able to get pretty close. It was a fast track lesson in learning to shoot wildlife with flash.
Locals would stop to chat, and after about six months a lovely guy came up and pulled a big bunch of keys out of his pocket. They live behind there, he said, gesturing to the allotments behind the row of houses. And then it all made sense. Foxes den in areas such as allotments, or cemeteries, that are mostly fenced off at night, so dogs can’t get in. They’re like us – they need food, water and shelter, and that allotment provided all those things. I would open the door, lock myself in and I’d feel like I was in my own mini fox national park. The whole project expanded and I started to learn and recognise the different foxes that lived there. They’re as individual as you and I, with different markings, characteristics, and ways of behaving and moving.
You’d never know what you were going to see – like when I got the fox with the rat in its mouth (highly commended in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020), or them fighting, but mostly they were just trotting around. They’re true omnivores, and eat worms, wild birds, berries, rodents, and of course our own kitchen waste – from vegetable peelings to pizza. But they’re constantly moving, which makes them very hard to capture.
My mission when I am photographing them is to be part of the environment so that they essentially ignore me. I would never reach and touch them, but without question they got to know me – on the rare times I took other people in there they would be very wary in a way they weren’t when it was just me. Animals learn your scent and also your shape; they would come and nibble my shoes, and on more than one occasion they chewed through my camera bag straps.
When I was younger I always loved seeing foxes. Late at night coming home from the pub it was always a thrill spotting one going into a front garden – I would peer in but it would always disappear, Houdini style. They have this incredible ability to almost shapeshift in their environment. They roam widely but each has its own territory.
Foxes are so divisive today. They’re still hunted with dogs, even though it’s illegal, and in cities they’re decried for the mess they make, for digging up gardens, even for attacking cats (which is actually incredibly rare). People in cities will say they’re overrun by foxes, but the reality is far from that. A 2018 study by Professor Dawn Scott estimates there are 11 foxes in London per square kilometre – roughly one fox for every 600 households. They have a high birth rate but a high mortality rate; cars are their greatest threat. Like a lot of wild animals they haven’t yet learned to read the speed and the distance of moving vehicles. It’s not really fair – foxes have been around for thousands of years, cars for only 100. And the ripped open bin bags? That’s a human not a fox problem. They just see food, and easy pickings at that.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. We used to have bears, wolves and lynx roaming these lands. The fox is the last relic, the last emblem of the wilderness – they’re so adaptable and successful. I often think, we spend thousands of pounds going to places like north America or Scandinavia to see coyote or wolves, but we’ve got these extraordinary animals right here on our doorstep we can watch for free.
A book of photography, Fox: Neighbour, Villain, Icon with photographs by Neil Aldridge, Matt Maran and Andy Parkinson, is being funded by a kickstarter campaign, live until 30 October. More at: matthewmaran.com; @mattmaranphoto
Matt Maran’s CV
Born 1977, London
Trained London College of Printing (now London College of Communication)
Influences Neil Aldridge, Tony Heald, Jo-Anne McArthur
High point “Finally capturing my most recognisable fox picture (Fox Meets Fox) after six months of failed attempts.”
Low point “Forgetting to take my lens cap off before shooting – almost every time!”
Top tip “Choose one accessible location to shoot and re-visit it over and over. Back gardens have the potential to produce exciting images equal to the east African plains.”