Going in search of Ipswich’s fantastic urban foxes

Fox Picture: Philip Charles

Fox Picture: Philip Charles - Credit: Archant

Ross Bentley has a close encounter with wildlife in Suffolk’s county town

Foxes in Ipswich Picture: Philip Charles

Foxes in Ipswich Picture: Philip Charles - Credit: Archant

Many people who have grown up in Suffolk feel the need to go out into the world before returning to their native East Anglia to settle down.

This is the case with Ipswich lad Philip Charles although his journey away was different to most.

He spent six years in Canada, mostly as a guide for nature tourists keen to see bears and orcas and has now returned to apply his experience to his new venture, Spirit of Suffolk, a business offering wildlife experiences in the county.

I meet Philip on a May evening in the hope that we will have an encounter with a family of foxes, which he knows are active and thriving in a park in central Ipswich. With dusk an hour or so away, we walk and talk and I hear Philip's fascinating story.

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Philip Charles

Philip Charles - Credit: Archant


Having studied at Easton and Otley College, Philip went on to take a degree in animal conservation science at the University of Cumbria and as part of the course spent time in British Columbia researching the dispersal of grizzly bears from the mainland onto nearby coastal islands.

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"It couldn't have been more remote," he said.

"I stayed with a First Nation (native American) community of 350 people, the nearest road is 200 miles away and the only way to get into the community is by float plane or there's a ferry once every couple of weeks."

The community also welcomes small numbers of high-end tourists from around the world, many on a trip of a lifetime, to stay in a lodge on the island and experience the wildlife in this spectacular part of the world: the humpback whales, orcas, brown bears (grizzlies), black bears and the much sought after spirit bear, an extremely rare sub species of the American black bear that are pure white in colour. It is thought that only about 100 spirit bears are left in existence.

Spirit bear in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles

Spirit bear in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles - Credit: Archant

Bear Whisperer

At first Philip joined these groups as a way to get out to bear territory for his studies but over time he became a guide.

"I naturally picked up all the guiding knowledge and then trained in how to guide people around bears," said Philip, who eventually worked a total of six seasons at the location and spent over 1,000 hours in the company of bears - his work seeing him mentor young First Nation recruits so they could become guides. He earned the nickname Bear Whisperer.

His experiences have been a great grounding for his new business, Spirit of Suffolk - the name a nod to the mysterious white bear and his home county. He takes people to view a range of wildlife around the Shotley Peninsula and Deben estuary, as well as Ipswich, with the principle of respect for nature at the forefront of any experience.

Brown bears in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles

Brown bears in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles - Credit: Archant

Value of nature

Philip, who has also made a return to Easton and Otley College where he teaches part-time on wildlife and conservation, talks about a conservation-based economy - a term he picked up in Canada where a lot resource extraction - fishing, mining and logging - takes place and where bears are still hunted.

"The lodge was set up to show there is more value to these animals being alive than them being killed," he explained.

"It's the same with the foxes - a lot of people see them as a pest or as unclean but that is definitely not the case. They are wonderful to watch and they have both a financial and spiritual value.

"I'm not setting this up [the business] to retire early or anything like that - it's about sharing that value and adding a value to these species."

Intimidating brown bear in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles

Intimidating brown bear in British Columbia Picture: Philip Charles - Credit: Archant

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Later as dusk falls, we're sat in his Land Rover with the windows down waiting for the foxes to emerge.

Tentative at first, they start to come out, checking places where some times food is left and rubbing themselves against a yew tree to mark their presence.

There are three animals in total, including a large male. We watch them bound and zig-zag across the green, stopping to pick insects from the dewy grass. They scurry under street lights, constantly sniffing the ground in front.

Humans come and go, the foxes sliding into the shadows and then re-appearing when the coast is clear. They are alert and wild, and perfectly at home in their role as nocturnal scavengers.

As if to illustrate this coming together of nature and the urban, a police siren sounds in the distance just as the large male hurries past my open window - only a few feet away. For several magical seconds I see the thick, russet-red coat and flowing, bushy tail close up.

It's an unforgettable encounter. Thank you Mr Fox, thank you Mr Fox Whisperer.