(WARNING: This article contains images of dead animals that some readers may find upsetting)
It's a quiet night in a Croydon cul-de-sac. Warm and windless, a few leaves are starting to fall around the wide gravel drives and hulking Victorian houses. In the suburbs, Saturday night's winding down.
I've come here to meet pest controller Tom Keightly. His job is one many view as antiquated, inhumane, and highly controversial. He eradicates foxes from urban areas, receiving around three requests per week from private clients, businesses, and residential addresses, from central London to the South Coast.
But for Tom, a countryman with a countryman's skills and a countryman's matter-of-factness, the role is one he views simply as the evolution of his upbringing in the Lincolnshire countryside.
"I've been shooting for around 35 years now," he explains as we sit talking inside the client's home. Tom shifts around as we speak, unpacking his .22 rimfire rifle, fitted with a telescopic site and loaded with hollow-point rounds that mushroom out and expand on impact.
"I kind of cut my teeth on an air rifle," he continues. "Shooting rats, squirrels, pigeons. And then I moved onto bigger and faster and stronger things. So I applied for my firearms certificate and started shooting foxes. You do it because someone's asked you to —casually. And then more people ask. And then more. I bought the pest control company some 15 years ago, but I've been shooting them in towns for about 20 years now."
I'm curious to find out why he's hired so frequently, and what must go through people's minds when they call in a fox culler.
"Nobody sees it as half and half," he says sharply. "When a client calls me I look at the property, I discuss what's going on, listen to them and their concerns. Usually there's too much [fox] defecation, they've got children, and they're concerned or they keep them awake at night. All kinds of stuff, plus the damage that they do. By the time people call me they've already made their mind up that they want them culled—they don't ask me, 'What are my options?' They say: 'When can you do it?'"
"But what about just releasing them somewhere else?" I ask.
"If you catch an animal in one area and release it in another, you abandon the animal, because it can't necessarily defend itself, and it probably can't feed. If you can prove it can do all of these things, it's a different matter. This is all part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prevents the relocation of animals from one site to another. At least this way it's quick."
As we wander around his client's house, with its sprawling hedges, manicured rockery and towering conker trees, Tom explains the culling process a little more.
"Foxes are creatures of habit. They're not stupid. They know where the food is. So if Mrs. Smith is feeding at 8 PM, that's where they'll be, regardless of anything else. So I utilize that to my own ends. I get my customer to bait a particular area on the lawn as close to the house as possible, same place, same time, every night without fail. I get them to make a sound—like a dinner gong, really—so they get used to that and associate it with food. I habituate them to my timescale: on that lawn, at that time."
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As we talk about Tom's Pavlovian techniques, he cleaves open a few tins of dog food and scatters them on the ground in an area near the center of the lawn. He turns, pointing up to the window he'll be shooting from, running his finger down and along the imaginary arc of the bullet.
As it approaches 8:30 PM, the time Tom's client has been baiting the lawn, we take our places at the window, watching the garden and its lengthening shadows.
Around 15 minutes later, the first fox appears. It's small, wiry, the rusty red coat a little ragged. It sniffs the air gingerly, making its way across the grass to the food. We shuffle back and forth, and although it looks up, it ignores us, turns back, and begins to eat.
In the next second, with a muffled little whomp from Tom's suppressed rifle, it's down. Just like that. From an is to a was in under a second, flat on its side and outstretched on the lawn. I'm taken aback at how quick it was. One moment, alive and full of early-evening energy. The next: down, extinguished.
We clamber downstairs and out into the garden to inspect it. Tom rolls the creature over. It's a small vixen, about three quarters of a meter nose-to-tail. A little oil slick of blood pooled under its cheek and its paws limp and curled in resignation.
"See that? Fast, wasn't it?" sparks in Tom.
"Yes," I reply, still a little stunned.
"First thing to remember is that I'm shooting downward. It makes for a clean shot. I shoot for the cranium. The object is to destroy the medulla oblongata, the brainstem that cuts their motor, and they hit the ground immediately. It doesn't even feel it," he says as he hauls it by the tail away from the food and to a little stony nook near the garden path. We climb the stairs back to Tom's post and I ask him about fox numbers in the UK.
"There's not a definite answer, but they think there's something like 450,000 in total. Something like 10 to 20,000 in urban areas. I've got nothing against them. Some people think I do. I wouldn't be the guy that shot the last one. No way. And if someone says to me they're going extinct, I'd stop shooting them. But they're not. Particularly not in urban areas."
Tom's certainly not light on work. From Camden to Croydon via Central London to Sussex, Brighton and the little farms stretched out over the South Downs, he's in high demand. I ask him which areas tend to be the most populated and why. And if, for people like me, who simply regard them as a creature of the environment to be respected and given space, killing foxes is something that can be avoided.
"I don't think people realize how many foxes there are in an urban situation," he replies. "They go out at night and they see a fox and think, 'Oh, how lovely.' They go out another night and maybe see another one—to them it's the same fox. And then they humanize them: 'Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox' and all that.
"Every job I've ever been to—this one included – a neighbor close by, maybe an immediate neighbor or maybe seven doors down, is feeding them. They get regular food, so that becomes the habitual thing. They're used to being fed by people. That, and all the takeaways round here… I've found them with three legs professionally stitched up by a vet or somebody, carrying vol-au-vents in their mouths."
But seeing a dead animal, especially one as majestic and semi-mythical as a fox, will always exact reaction. I ask him some more about the attention he's attracted.
"There are three phone numbers on my mobile phone. I allow them to ring me, because I've found if I block them they try harder," says Tom. "If they want to ring me and present an argument for and against, I'll listen. But they've never got that far. All I get is expletives—F-ing and blinding, and then they hang up the phone."
As we continue talking, huddled by the window, he cuts me off with a hand gesture. The next fox appears, sniffing over the food.
He fires again. Silence. I ask him how it feels.
"I feel satisfaction that I've done the job right and quickly," he says, blinking slowly and looking over the fox's body. "I'm not a mechanic; I don't fix cars. This is what I do."
Listening to him talk, it's clear that—morals or matters of the heart aside, and having spent over three decades shooting them—Tom has an oddly-placed affinity with the creature. Almost like a comic book rival that his respect allows him to outsmart.
"Strange, isn't it. If I were sat on my own, in my own conservatory, I'd be happy to watch them. I love the sound, too," he says. "A lot of people describe it as 'a beautiful howl.' To me, it's like rain on the windows. I could listen to it all night."
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Soon, it's night. The long shadows have disappeared and everything's dipped in dark blue. In the distance, the lights are on in a high rise and the silhouettes of people drift through the rooms. The air is soundless apart from a few planes drifting overhead and the occasional sound of footsteps through one of the little alleys or streets surrounding the property. Then, the third appears.
It's larger than the others—skittish and light-legged, maybe because of the blood sitting on the lawn. It pricks up and sniffs the air, glances around and bolts away. I stop watching and turn to watch Tom. He's hung in the shadows, away from the window, watching, his rifle leaning against the window frame.
Whatever feelings I had about writing this, it's at least comforting to see that Tom's not gung ho, impatient, or into taking pot-shots. Eventually, he lines up the angle and it's down. The bullet passing through the top of its left ear, and boring down into the skull. He hauls it off to sit with the others.
After the third, no more approach. We sit for another hour. The garden's empty now, its mounted security lights blasting the lawn in light. And given their punctuality, Tom calls time on the night and begins to pack up.
But as my photographer and I make our way downstairs, we swing open the back door to see another. It's standing right in front of the food. Right there: frozen, looking at us with its eyes lit by the lamp-glare above. We try to level our cameras for a picture but it vanishes. Gone. Back into the shadows to live another day.
And as he gives us a lift to the station, we chat a little more about the future of Tom's business and the future of the urban fox.
"I don't envisage a time I'll be unemployed shooting foxes," he says, shrugging. "But if I had to say one thing: Stop bloody feeding them. They're there because there's food. If they can't get in the bins or the waste bags and you're not feeding them, there's no reason for them to be there. And then there's no reason for me. They respond to the amount of food that's available. and that's it.
"In the pest control journals they're beginning to put out courses for urban fox culling. Because of the uproar, because of the causes, a lightbulb's come on in the head of a lot of pest controllers who haven't got firearms and who want to make money without training. And that scares me."