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The Nature of PEI

by Gary Schneider

(photo: Donna Martin)I enjoy seeing nature close up and feeling that I am a part of my surroundings. It is not humans watching nature, but humans as part of the natural world. I admit to being more comfortable walking a forest path than shopping in a mall, but I do recognize that both are components of this modern world.

This past May, I could walk from my house in Tea Hill to the road and see young fox kits playing in front of the culvert.  The mother sat nearby, alert but seemingly not anxious. It is a relatively quiet road, but still, it felt like a dangerous place to let your youngsters play. The kits—like chipmunks and flying squirrels—reminded me once again of the beauty that surrounds us. And that we don’t always have to look in other provinces or countries for exotic creatures.

Foxes are a part of our rich cultural and natural history.  In Stratford and many other Island communities, you still see dark foxes with silver streaks, instead of the reddish ones we normally see. Most are descendants of ones released after the fox farming industry—so vibrant in the first half of the 20th century—was no longer profitable.

When you visit the Royalty Oaks Natural Area in East Royalty, beautiful red oak, sugar maple and yellow birch shade the remains of old fox pens. What looks at first glance to be an undisturbed forest was once a thriving fox farm. As with almost every square inch of the province, you see the influences of human hands there.

Foxes are very opportunistic. When coyotes first came to this Island over three decades ago, many people said this would be the end of red foxes, since they compete for the same food sources. But while coyote populations have steadily climbed, the fox population remains healthy. Red foxes are more suited to urban habitats than coyotes, so that is one reason that we are seeing them more and more.

Foxes are also extremely cute, which leads to them being fed by some well-intentioned residents and tourists. I’ve even seen a fox walking along the side of the road with a hotdog in its mouth. Despite being capable hunters, if a fox can get free handouts or mooch a meal from an outdoor bowl of dogfood, it will take advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, feeding foxes can lead to problems. Last year in the National Park, staff put up signs to remind visitors not to feed wild animals, as there was a red fox displaying aggressive behaviour.

Being a fox has other challenges, of course. Dead foxes are often found along roadsides, the result of being unable to outrun a car. This year there has also been an outbreak of mange in some Island foxes. A parasitic mite causes the animal to scratch, leading to skin irritation and occasionally even death. So life is not all rosy for these lovely creatures.

I’m just grateful that I can see foxes in so many habitats, and it can make my day just having one wander by. I have fond memories of watching a fox digging a den on the edge of a field right beside the road, and the one that chased a red squirrel up a hawthorn in my backyard, emerging still hungry but unscarred.

And many others feel the same way, including the students from Montague Intermediate School and MLA Bush Dumville, who successfully promoted the red fox as our provincial animal. Given the long cultural history and the fact that it is a common sight, this is an excellent choice.

—Gary Schneider is the founder and Supervisor of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forest Project and has a great interest in the natural history of Prince Edward Island.

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