A Q&A with photographer Mark Mason Gardner of Fox N The City
While illustrating Horace Fox in the City I regularly looked at Fox N The City for inspiration. Fox N The City is a Facebook group founded by Mark Mason Gardner to share his love of wildlife and the photographs he takes of foxes that visit his London garden. Fox N The City has thousands of followers and Mark has been featured on the BBC’s Springwatch programme with Michaela Strachan. I’ve known Mark for many years, but back in our clubbing days we didn’t talk about foxes so I was keen to learn more about Mark’s passion.
JH: You take amazing photographs and the foxes obviously trust you and look so relaxed in your garden, how did you develop such a strong relationship with them?
Mark: My father was a gamekeeper and hunter with guns and crossbows and my childhood was full of dead animals which I hated. When I was 12 I spent two summer holidays painting coups and hutches for the guy who employed my dad as a gamekeeper. I learnt that to watch wildlife you needed to be quiet and move very slowly. When I’m watching foxes or any wildlife I always try not to move. Move slowly if you have to.
When I wanted to learn how to groom my dog I did a couple of days a week in a grooming parlour. We groomed all the dogs that no one else would groom – biters and aggressive dogs – and I learnt from this lady how it was all to do with my voice. A soft, kind, calm voice would slowly win the dog over and make it a nicer experience for the dog so learning to be quiet around animals and using that soft encouraging voice with the foxes seems to have worked to build their trust. It’s wonderful when I talk to one of the foxes and they tilt their head just like a dog would.
JH: Have you always been into photography or was it watching the wildlife in your garden that inspired you?
Mark: I’ve been into wildlife photography for about ten years now. To be honest, whenever Rod (Mark’s husband) and I went on holiday, I was all about getting the perfect photo of me. I was very vain up to the age of 42. Rod got me a camera for Christmas ten years ago and I started taking pictures of wildlife in parks etc. Eight years ago, I was in hospital with a few problems, some of which remain today, and when Rod got me home from the hospital I said I wanted to sit outside by the pond with my camera to take pictures of a robin. Rod wheeled me into the garden and 20 minutes later a beautiful fox appeared on the cabin roof. It was magical, all my pain was forgotten for a few minutes and that’s when this wonderful journey started for me.
Photographing the foxes and wildlife has helped develop my work and I’ve learnt by my mistakes. I love natural light on my photos and never use Photoshop. I love to photograph all the wildlife that visits the garden. We had a sparrowhawk in the garden last year. Sometimes I do just turn the camera off and enjoy special moments the foxes have gifted.
JH: Do foxes visit every day?
Mark: The foxes visit most days. Their den is nearby and they also like to sleep in our old hen house. I take photos most days and the first thing I do when I wake up is check the garden. I have a camera in the kitchen all the time.
JH: I know you name the foxes and can obviously differentiate between then, has that always been easy or did it come with experience?
Mark: Giving the foxes names helps to document them and supporters of the Fox N The City Facebook page enjoy getting involved with choosing the names. This year I can prove time and time again that they know their names. My favourite cub this year is Bobble. She had a tough start and has a disabled leg but she is always ready for what the night brings her. Being disabled myself, she reminds me how lucky I am to have the support, love and care that I do have. Forest who was blind in one eye and featured on Springwatch was my favourite as again he showed me how he got on with life.
The best way to ID the foxes is to look at the smudge marks on their faces. They are all slightly different. Most of the time I can tell who is who in the garden. Some have white tips to tails and some don’t. Mum has a piece of her ear missing so it’s easy to identify her.
JH: Do you notice different personality traits between the foxes?
Mark: The foxes are very different in character: some are shy, some are bold, some are playful, some more vocal than their siblings. Mum has been watching them this week. It’s nearly time for them to do a Horace (in Horace Fox in the City Horace is forced to leave home) and find their own patch to rule. Hopefully Mum will let one of the girls stay.
JH: What tips do you have for anyone who wants to develop an urban garden to attract more wildlife?
Mark: We have created wild areas in our garden. A water feature or pond will bring lots of wildlife to your garden and a compost heap helps as do wild flowers. Encouraging bugs means birds will come and that will lead to small mammals and larger mammals. A pile of logs or wood creates a nice place for bugs to live. I’ve made a few bug hotels and planted a cherry tree which the squirrels, blackbirds and foxes all enjoy. A couple of bowls of water in the garden helps the wildlife. Put pebbles in one of them so bugs can drink safely. Plant bamboo as it makes a nice sound in the wind and foxes like to sit under the leaves when it rains.
JH: Unfortunately, my dog likes to chase the foxes that visit my garden, how do your dogs and cat react?
Mark: Our cat Fudge shares the garden with the foxes. Over the years they seem to have learned to respect each other’s space. Fudge has attacked a couple of foxes for getting too close to her and the young cubs soon learn to respect her. The dogs are happy to watch the foxes from the lounge window without barking. They have a separate area the foxes don’t come into. We had a strange cat in the garden a couple of weeks ago that attacked one of the cubs and momma fox appeared from nowhere and bundled the cat to the ground. The fox could have used her teeth but she didn’t. Foxes don’t like fighting with cats but it can happen.
JH: Have you noticed any differences in the foxes’ behaviour due to lockdown?
Mark: The wildlife has been much more visible throughout lockdown. For a few weeks in London they were breathing clean air. My garden is a massive part of my life so I notice what visits but I’m sure more people who were working from home noticed wildlife in their gardens for the first time. Wildlife is an incredible gift. Nature is calming and healing, it’s there to help us when we are in need, even when we don’t know it.
JH: Any plans for Fox N The City and your photographs?
Mark: I’ve been documenting this family of foxes for over eight years. It’s a passion that I can’t explain and Fox N The City seems to have helped lots of people through the lockdown including me. When BBC Springwatch contacted me about doing a feature about the foxes it was amazing. As a keen wildlife photographer, it was wonderful to know that my material was good enough for the BBC, plus I got to tell the story of Forest, a fox that inspired me to get up and get on with life no matter what. I probably have 150,000 photos that I’ve taken of foxes and this year I got the slice of the pie that was missing when I managed to photograph foxes from five weeks old playing in the garden. I thought that this would be the end but I find myself already thinking about cubs in the spring of 2021. Fox N The City gives me something to do and helps others enjoy foxes they would never see. It’s not down to me, it’s down to the foxes.
Mark lives in London with his husband Rod. They have been shielding since November 2019 due to Mark’s ongoing health conditions.
All the photographs featured are by Mark Mason Gardner
To see more of Mark’s work go to Fox N The City
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