Fishing and Shooting

Perhaps understandably, Cate Mowat didn't think I was the sort of person who'd be terribly interested in foxes other than dreaming up different methods of killing them.

This is entirely true, up to a point. But you will usually find people who spend a lot of time trying to outwit something like a fox end up with a great deal of respect for the animal. Foxes are like people; you don't actually have to like them to respect them.

"Love the fox or hate it, it's an astonishing survivor and I think there's something to be learnt from that," writes Mowat. She first became interested in foxes when one appeared in her garden in Bo'ness with a bit of its tail missing. How it lost a bit of tail we do not know, but its comings and goings sparked an interest in foxes in general and black foxes in particular.

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Rather flatteringly, she thinks I might know something sage and useful about black foxes. The truth is I know nothing about black foxes and I am not sure I had even heard of them before Mowat mentioned them. But then it appears almost no one else knows anything about them either.

All the same, she thinks someone out there in gamekeeping, farming or forestry might have come across one. I fear this might be a bit of a wild goose chase, but no worse than looking for black panthers and giant cats, which no one has ever satisfactorily explained or indeed photographed. But a black fox has been photographed in Lancashire.

I need hardly say it was spotted in a graveyard, which according to folklore and legend is the most likely place to spot a black anything – fox, cat or devil dog.

The Lancashire black fox was possibly a red cub going through a dark phase, although if you look it up on the internet it was as black as a black cat and quite unlike an escaped farmed "silver fox", which is more a rather mangy greyish colour than silver but still at the black end of the spectrum.

The pure black fox, if it exists outside a Lancashire graveyard, is probably some sort of mutation. No-one farms foxes these days although there certainly used to be fox farming in Scotland, in Perthshire, Argyll and Easter Ross as an adjunct of mink farming. A few were imported from North America, where they occur naturally, for breeding purposes (in colonial times the Brits took red foxes to the US believing the native American black fox to be an inferior quarry for hounds).

But it is thought highly unlikely, says Mowat, who has been worrying away at everyone from the Scottish Wildlife Trust to Edinburgh Zoo, that any escapees could have bred with wild foxes and passed on the black gene.

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So any black foxes anyone comes across are likely to be the real thing. It would not surprise me if there were old accounts of black foxes in Scotland or even memories of black foxes – probably being shot.

• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday April 10, 2010