The red fox is usually elusive in the countryside and because of its nocturnal habits, it is a very difficult animal to observe. However, much activity can be seen during the day, especially in undisturbed areas. Daytime activity can be at any time of the year but it is usually at its peak during the mating and cubbing season.
In urban areas, daytime activity is a lot less common, except at places such as railway embankments and other no-go areas that may contain plenty of cover and grassland.
Probably the best way of studying foxes in the wild is by the modern method of radio-tracking. Not everyone, though, is a professional field biologist, so in the next few pages I shall explain the best ways, which have worked for me, of studying foxes in the wild by direct observation and other methods. These will help you to get closer to and learn more about this fascinating creature.
To find out if foxes are present in an area is a fairly simple task. You may find this out by looking for signs in the field or asking local landowners and farmers. Listening for fox calls at night is another way or simply waiting patiently to see them.
Looking for field signs: When looking for fox signs in any area, the four most important things are as follows:
- Scats (droppings)
- Footprints (smaller and more oval in shape than a dog’s and with hairs on the pads)
- The occasional sweet, musky smell of fox urine
- Tufts of hair which may be found snagged on barbed wire if the fox paths go through fences.
These signs can be found almost anywhere, but the most likely places in a rural setting are along field margins and around rabbit warrens and woodland. Foxes tend to make regular paths alongside hedgerows and make their way along the edges of fields during winter months rather than crossing them, especially if land is ploughed. Rabbit warrens are marked with scats regularly.
Asking farmers and landowners:This is often a very effective way of finding out how common foxes are in local areas and can lead to direct observations of the animals. Farmers usually know where the breeding earths are and where to regularly catch sight of foxes travelling and hunting.
It is also a good idea to have the landowners’ consent before walking on the land.
In urban or town areas it is best to ask night shift security guards and police officers about the whereabouts of any fox activity.
Listening for fox calls: This is best done at night, but is not always a suitable way of locating foxes as calls are more common at various times of the year and foxes seem to be more vocal in some areas than others. Nevertheless, at the right time of year it is an easy and effective method to find out if foxes are around, providing you don’t mind patrolling fields or country lanes after dark.
When to listen:The first fox yells and barks for courtship can be heard in December, though they are few and far between.
Towards the end of January up until May, foxes can be heard barking regularly each evening as darkness falls. The bark can best be described as a “wow, wow, wow” sound.
As the night goes on, the calls are heard at less regular intervals. Quite often up to five or more individual foxes can be heard echoing across the countryside at the peak of vocal activity.
Direct observation: This comes last on the list for finding out if foxes are present. After hours of patient waiting, you want to have a guaranteed foxwatch, so it is best to do your research first.
Taking strolls at dawn or before dusk often reveals the whereabouts of foxes.
Food baiting an area regularly at night will eventually bring them to you. Almost any type of food will do, although it may also attract rats, cats, dogs or other animals instead of the fox, so again, it is best to look for signs beforehand to ascertain that foxes are in the area.
Road Kill: Road kill foxes can not only tell you that there are foxes in your area but can also show you the routes they travel through at that particular time of year and also sex and age of the fox. The most likely months for road kills are September (when young foxes are wandering and dispersing, particularly young males); December & January (the courtship season when there is a height of activity); Late spring (when there are young cubs wandering from the earth). Be careful not to get run over or cause an accident if you are looking at road kill foxes. Make sure it is safe to do so and also legal.
A dead fox is also a indication that the surrounding area might be a good place to watch, film and photograph foxes especially if there are good open fields around. A road killed young cub is a good clue that there is an active earth nearby so get searching.
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Watching foxes can be extremely enjoyable and reveals many truths about the animal. In rural areas daytime observation is possible while in urban areas it is best to leave it until night-time. The most productive place will be at the breeding earth, otherwise it is often a hit and miss affair, but if roughly the time and place are known, it saves a lot of waiting around and cuts down on unproductive watches. In areas of low persecution and high fox population, observation should be easier.
The size of the territory makes a lot of difference in whether you see your foxes regularly or seldom. Both depend on the availability of food. If food is scarce the foxes have to travel further afield to find it and therefore have vast territories. If, on the other hand, food is plentiful, the territory will hold a larger fox population and be smaller, since it won’t be necessary for the foxes to travel so far.
Daytime watching: This is most productive during Spring and Summer. The most rewarding places to watch are:
- Around the breeding earth
- When the fox is hunting around a rabbit warren
- When hunting in long grass for mice
- When foraging for worms in meadows grazed by cattle or horses
- Or, very commonly can be seen at dawn or dusk in meadows that have recently been mown.
When watching at breeding earths spend as much time as possible there, always keeping downwind and not too close. The cubs may be moved by the vixen if she knows a human being is around, though some will tolerate a minimum amount of disturbance. The cubs are quite often moved anyway, to be introduced to other earths and perhaps different parts of the territory, although they are usually brought back to the original earth. Some times the litter is split up, with only half the cubs being taken to another earth – it is not known why the parents do this. Cubs first start appearing out of the earths during April and sometimes May.
If possible, position yourself at an earth before dawn and stay all day until nightfall. Activity should be constant throughout the day, but sometimes cubs will go to ground to rest. The parents often leave the cubs alone for hours and they remain quite active and start to explore during daylight. This is the ideal occasion to quietly take photographs. The parents bring food to the cubs during the day at this time of year and you will gradually get to know their approach routes. The vixen will suckle the cubs above ground now also. At some earths there will almost always be an adult around. This is common in urban foxes, when there will be a babysitter or helper.
Cubs usually show little fear of man when first exploring around the earth and can be approached closely at this stage of playing and learning to catch beetles.
Late April/early May is a good time to sit near a rabbit warren at dawn or early evening to watch for an adult hunting. The parents are under more pressure to hunt by day now as the cubs are hungry and growing fast. It’s best to be patient and wait well into the morning or well before dusk, keeping well concealed and downwind. When hunting for mice, foxes can be seen at almost any time of the day in cub season or can be seen pouncing for them in thick snow during the deep of winter. In February also they are very active and can be seen hunting during the day.
Night-time Watching: This will be easier in urban areas where there are street lamps. Activity starts later at night than in the country. Urban foxes are ideal to lay down food for to observe their social behaviour. They are normally easier to get close to than rural foxes, since they suffer less persecution and tend to live in bigger social groups. Foxes can be watched in the countryside too at night, but image intensifiers are required or a more affordable high powered lamp can be used. Foxes will often ignore a beam of light but because high powered lamps are often used when shooting foxes, many have become shy of lights. The white torch light will usually be ignored as they emerge from their earths, providing you are downwind and extremely quiet.
If foxes are seen fairly regularly in an area and leave many droppings around, then this most certainly should be a fixed territory. Once a fox territory is found, the breeding earths will be fairly easy to find, providing you look for them in late April/early May. This is also the best time to watch at breeding earths.
However there are specific types of habitat to search around where earths are likely to be. Some are on completely open ground, others in very dense cover such as thick hedgerow and bramble patches. They can also be on large banks or hillsides, where the ground is sloping, dry, well drained and easily dug. A common site for earths is where the fringes of woodland and forest meet the fields and meadows because this gives the fox earth quite a bit of cover. I have often found earths by walking along the edges of a wood in April and May and have stumbled upon young cubs playing or wandering around outside their earth.
Old rabbit warrens and badger setts are often taken over by vixens to rear their cubs. Watching cubs can sometimes be frustrating if they are moved from one earth to another in the territory. This can happen quite often, either through disturbance or simply the fact that they are moved to a more suitable, dryer earth as they outgrow the old one. Sometimes they can be relocated not too far away and other times they can be extremely difficult or impossible to find again.
An occupied earth, whether found in winter, spring or summer usually has a well worn trail to and from it, the odd scat outside or near it and possibly, but not always, the odd bit of bone or feather. There is usually the unmistakable scent of fox from the musky-sweet smell of fox urine around the earth. The hole itself may be fairly large, having an arched, tunnel-shaped appearance to the entrance rather than the round entrance of the badger sett or rabbit hole. Other times the entrance may be surprisingly and deceptively small, only about 30cm in diameter.
- Latin Name:Vulpes Vulpes
- Lifespan:Up to 14 years in captivity, but much less in the wild – can be up to two years in urban areas, often less.
- Average Length:Dog – 108.9cm; Vixen – 101.1 cm
- Average Weight: Dog – 6.7kg; Vixen – 5.4kg
Breeding: Rutting season starts in December, reaches its peak at the end of January/February, when much daytime activity becomes common and when several foxes can be seen playing and interacting on frosty mornings or in snow. Mating is often seen during the day and night at this time. Foxes also become quite bold and oblivious to their surroundings and the dog will spend most of his time closely following the vixen during the day and night. Much barking is heard during the evenings at this time, probably to maintain contact between individuals.
“The vixens have a single oestrus period lasting three weeks, though fertilisation is only possible during three days, but mating occurs outside this period.’ From ‘The Handbook of British Mammals’ by Corbet & Harris.
Young: On average 4-5 cubs are born, mainly in March. The birth and growth of fox cubs are similar to domestic dog puppies. The cubs are born blind and deaf onto the bare soil down in the earth. They are not hairless but have short black fur. Those that have white tail tags will already be showing them. Eyes open at 2-3 weeks of age when solid food will start to be nibbled. At first the eyes will be a slate blue colour but change to brown or amber at 4-5 weeks. This coincides with changes in fur colour, the chocolate brown starts to change with the patches of red beginning to develop, starting on the face. Some cubs are more red than others at birth and will develop their red coat earlier. Some stay quite dark for life. Individuals from the same litter may also vary greatly in colour.
Cubs first start to appear at the mouth of the earth on very wobbly legs at around 3 – 4 weeks. By 4 – 5 weeks they are trotting around and will know the area around their earth well. They can now forage for the odd beetle, slug or worm.
‘From 3 weeks onwards, the vixen spends an increasing amount of time away from the cubs and by 4 -5 weeks often only comes back to feed cubs.’ From ‘The Handbook of British Mammals’ by Corbet & Harris.
Normally by 6 weeks, the whole of the coat is coloured red, but still woolly. The muzzle becomes more elongated, giving the appearance of a miniature adult.
Adult guard hairs appear at 8 weeks old. From 4 weeks onwards cubs can bark like adults, but in a higher pitched tone. They usually bark when the parents spend long periods of time away from the cubs. Ground around the earth is usually scattered with debris such as bones, fur and feathers. Small cub scats accumulate around the earth entrances and the surrounding ground. Rabbit and hare bones may be found completely devoured of flesh, the young cubs suck all the meat off as their jaws are not strong enough to crunch the bone yet. Cubs can be seen playing at almost any time of the day at this stage, but from 6 weeks onwards they gradually become less diurnal and more nocturnal and crepuscular – active throughout the night, dawn and dusk. Areas of long grass and vegetation become flattened due to cub playing. Although adult visits become less frequent towards the end of May in order that the cubs will be encouraged to explore, adult attention has not declined. The cubs will now lay-up in cover away from the earth and I have watched vixens visit them about 8pm in June and July. They will visit them each evening and surprisingly still suckle the cubs regularly at this stage. Cubs will still beg for food from parents in August, when they are nearly adult size.
Adult Mortality Rate: Mortality varies from season to season. In the peak of courtship (January & February) there will be a higher death rate in both sexes. Although foxes remain largely monogamous, there is a certain amount of promiscuous behaviour during the mating season, mainly in dog foxes. During this time foxes wander into strange territory and are covering much more ground than usual, crossing many more roads than they would normally do and generally exposing themselves to more danger due to their increased activity and travels. The number of adult foxes seen dead along roadsides also increases at this time. When cubs are being weaned onto solid food in April and May the parents have to be twice as active by day as well as night in order to search for the extra food, thereby again exposing themselves to higher levels of danger.
Cub Mortality Rate: Cubs may be killed by foxhunt hounds, dug out by man and his terriers, shot, run over, eaten by badgers, taken by golden eagles in Scotland, killed by other foxes or generally die from disease.
“In Northern Ireland, fox population is probably limited by high cub mortality as a result of various diseases.” From The Handbook of British Mammals by Corbet & Harris.
As a general rule, a higher percentage of cubs die than adults, especially in areas of heavy traffic. Dr. David MacDonald – author of ‘Running with the Fox’ – explains that 63% of Oxford city foxes die before their first birthday, largely due to traffic accidents.
Diet: Foxes will eat just about anything but they do have their preferences. The diet of an individual can vary so much that the fox is considered omnivorous rather than carnivorous. The amount of predation on birds and mammals, whether wild or domestic, varies from habitat to habitat and is a big debate. Fruit can make up a large part of the diet during the Autumn and earth worms are commonly eaten.
Rodents: In Britain the field vole is preferred more than any other rodent. Wood-mice, rats, bank voles and squirrels are seldom taken if field voles are around. In Ireland the next best thing is the wood mouse, followed by bank voles (only found in County Clare). Rats and squirrels come last on the list.
Insectivores: These consist of common shrews, pygmy shrews, water shrews, moles and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are often eaten if the fox can get to the underparts. Shrews and moles may often be found dead around earths but not eaten, although moles may sometimes be partially eaten. In Ireland the pygmy shrew and hedgehog are the only insectivores to exist.
Rabbits and Hares: Where a good number of rabbits are available to the fox, they will be a major part of the diet. Foxes depend heavily on rabbits in Ireland, although in urban areas they are less likely to be important. My own studies have shown that in rural places where rabbits abound, observations in daylight are more frequent and there is a higher fox population. This could cause fluctuations in local fox numbers from year to year as rabbit numbers rise and fall due to myxomatosis. As field voles are plentiful in Britain the rabbit is not quite so important to the fox. The brown hare of Britain is not commonly found in the diet of the fox, not because they are not a preferred food – for they very much are – but because they are difficult to catch. Although the mountain hare of Ireland and Scotland is a major part of the fox diet this is only at the hares’ peak population. Their numbers fluctuate every 10 years.
Lambs: Although dead lambs can sometimes be found around breeding earths, this is no proof that they were actually killed by the fox. Many intense prolonged studies have been made by scientists in Scotland, England and Wales on fox predation of lambs. Some farmers claim to have more losses to foxes than others, none had ever actually seen a fox taking a healthy lamb and there is still little evidence of fox predation on healthy lambs. This is not to say that attacks never happen but when they do they must be so few that the Ministry of Agriculture in Britain refuse to list the fox as a major pest for annual lamb mortality.
In remote areas of Scotland, scientists have discovered that sheep may be an important part of fox diet without having any effect whatsoever on the survival of sheep. Predation on lambs occurs more in very remote areas with poor land and where natural prey may be harder to come by. For instance, when vole and rabbit numbers drastically fall, foxes may rely more on sheep carrion or lamb. This indicates that sheep meat is not a preferred food and foxes would rather avoid lamb and mutton when other food is available.
‘Lamb survival on the Scottish isle of Mull, where there are no foxes, was no better than on the nearby mainland, where foxes occur and were hunted.’ From ‘Running with the Fox’ by David MacDonald.
Poultry: Foxes kill when they need to. If there is an opportunity to scavenge, they would rather that than to spend all their time hunting. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that they are not sometimes a nuisance to people.
Although chickens and ducks are sometimes taken, it occurs less commonly than thought and happens more on remote farms. There may be the odd “nuisance” fox in certain areas which makes a regular habit of attacking poultry but the culprit, of course, is invariably destroyed. Instead of this it would be far more effective for the poultry owners to shut up birds securely at night. Shooting the fox may solve the problem for a while but it only makes room for another and sooner or later hens will go missing again. Intense fox control might stop it for good, but will be more costly in the long run than building one secure hen-house.
Birds: Blackbirds are sometimes caught as they often run along hedgerows for quite a while before flying off, thus quite often being directly in the fox’s path. Birds’ eggs are taken but again only when the fox comes across them. Large numbers of gulls and terns along sea cliffs can be killed but this happens due to there being such an unnatural balance available to the fox. When this occurs, a predator will surplus kill in order to bring the number down to natural balance and each bird shall be taken off, buried and stored for when food is hard to come by. The same thing happens in a chicken run, the fox will come back for each one to take away and cache – if he is left undisturbed. Likewise foxes can cause havoc in a game-keepers’ pheasant rearing pen – again an unnatural amount of birds together triggering off the surplus killing. All predators do this, unknowingly of course, by instinct.
‘In one breeding season about 200 black-headed gulls were killed by each of four foxes, with 230 killed in one night.’ From The Handbook of British Mammals by Corbet & Harris.
Birds like pheasants and partridges are not often in the staple diet of the fox for in natural conditions the animal would not come across them often enough and they would be harder to catch. Foxes are not usually a threat to pheasant, partridge, grouse or pigeon populations although sometimes they will take brooding partridges and their eggs.
Worms and Insects: When young foxes first start hunting and foraging for themselves, worms and beetles may be the only things found in their stomachs for the first few months of life. As they grow into adulthood they get to know the best worming grounds. Cubs are taught how to pull worms from the ground without breaking them in half by the vixen, who shows them how to keep the worm taut when pulling it and to gently prod it with a paw, consequently loosening it from the ground with small vibrations. The worm’s hold gradually weakens and thus no part of it is lost by the fox. The cub learns quickly but – only naturally – fails the first few attempts.
“Earthworms, in some months, could provide over 60 per cent of the calorific intake.” From The Handbook of British Mammals by Corbet & Harris.
In late Summer and Autumn, beetle wings are commonly found in scats. If examined closely, much soil and sand can be found together with the cheatea of earthworms. Slugs are eaten quite a lot and the odd grasshopper.
Fruit: This mainly occurs in fox diets during Autumn, when the whole of the fox dropping may consist of blackberry pips. Windfall apples are also taken but this will vary from place to place. Cooking apples are not favoured. Fruit is quite a popular fox food and plums, grapes and other berries are eaten when available. Vegetable matter is not often taken though grass is frequently found in stomachs and scats. Raisins are a very attractive food if put out for foxes by urban dwellers.
Analysing Scats: The best way to find out the diet of the local fox population is to analyse scats in detail. This can be done by collecting as many scats as possible from the known fox haunts and soaking them overnight in a jar of water.
The next morning, stir vigorously until broken up. When the contents have settled, use a pipette to spread some of the settled sediment onto a microscope slide. A low powered microscope will do.
If the fox has been eating worms you will see the little bristles that grow out of the worms skin, these are called cheatea and help the worm to grip the earth when being pulled out of the ground. Under a microscope they look like little daggers. The rest of the jar’s contents can be put through a fine sieve or old stocking. Once drained put them into an enamel dish with clean water so that the remains can be identified clearly.
Animal bones and fur shall be harder to identify than earthworm cheatea, beetle wings and grass. Grass is sometimes consumed by foxes but the explanation for this is uncertain. Suggestions are that it may be for roughage or simply taken by accident when foraging for insects. Although the surprisingly large amounts of grass often found in scats, indicates that it must be taken purposefully.
Rabbit bones are usually split into sharp pieces and the fur of rabbits is easily identified and fairly obvious in scats. It is not so with bones and fur of rodents. Identification of these can be quite difficult, for the acid in the fox’s stomach works so brilliantly that it breaks down and dissolves most of the skull and teeth of the rodent, leaving only the bottom jaw visible.
The best time to find out how much foxes predate on rabbits in an area is to wait until the rabbit population is thriving and healthy. The same goes for the Irish Hare, since its populations fluctuate every 10 years. Woodmice and field voles also have an up and down cycle.
A field guide for mammals can be obtained from any good bookshop to help identify bones and fur of particular rodents or birds. Books on analysing owl pellets are very useful in learning how to identify bones, fur and feather.
Fruit is not hard to identify. Some scats can solely be made up of a solid mass of blackberry pips and if the fox has been eating only blackberries the scats will be a runny blackberry looking mass – rather like a small cow-pat. If plums have been eaten, the stone will be found in the scats.
Another advantage of analysing scats is that they can help you to determine the size of the fox’s territory. This is done by regularly leaving out food and scattering small bits of brightly coloured wool throughout it. Hopefully then this will be consumed by the fox and eventually show up in the fox’s dropping. When scats with wool are found this will give you an indication of how far the fox is travelling around from where it is being fed.
Socialisation and Communication
It was thought until recently that foxes were solitary and avoided each others’ company, except in the breeding season. Through much work over the past 20 years or so, many more facts have been uncovered about fox social life and society.
Originally it was thought that only a pair could share a territory without coming into contact except for copulation in January.
It is now known that there can be an average of six or seven foxes in the same territory, forming bonds with each other and regularly meeting up. They have a strict social hierarchy, much like a pack of wolves or domestic dogs, but they do not hunt together in a pack.
As in a wolf pack there will be an Alpha male and female, with subordinate vixens and sometimes the odd subordinate dog fox. Only the dominant pair shall mate and bear young, while the subordinates will not come into season and will help out with the rearing of the cubs. This happens automatically without much skirmishing, unlike wolves and coyotes, who have to prevent the subordinates from mating, for they do come into season.
The lower rank vixens are usually sisters or daughters from the previous year, who have stayed on the parents’ territory instead of dispersing during the prior Autumn. The young dog foxes in the litter usually disperse but sometimes they will stay on as subordinates in the group.
Large groups will not be in every fox territory, as a territory can only hold the amount of foxes according to food availability. Some territories can only sustain one dog and one vixen. Certain foxes may be wandering loners who roam the countryside with no fixed domain. If there is not enough food to hold a group of foxes then the young are driven out by the parents in the Autumn – sometimes with a huge screaming fight.
In urban areas the situation may be entirely different. Studies by Dr. David MacDonald (author of Running with the Fox) on urban foxes in Oxford city showed that there are large groups mixing together in the same territory without any social structure or proper social hierarchy. Most vixens breed and often two share the same earth to rear their two litters of cubs.
A theory for this is that the mortality rate for foxes in urban areas is very high and so they don’t have a chance to establish a proper pecking order since the annual fox turnover is so great.
Where foxes are kept in captivity, hierarchies are very strict and by watching a social group it is not very hard to spot who is dominant and who is submissive. The subordinates will crouch with ears flat, tails lashing and often mouths open when they approach or are approached by a higher ranking fox.
Accompanying this there may be small whining noises. The lower in rank, the lower the crouch will be. The actions of the foxes who are higher on the ladder will not be so exaggerated when they come across the dominant pair. The dominant foxes usually look on and ignore these displays.
From laying out food for groups of wild foxes, I have observed the submissive waiting for the dominant fox to come and take food first. There is very much more to be learned about fox social behaviour as hierarchies are formed in very young litters of cubs, while they are still underground.
There are many different fox sounds, meaning many different things when they are communicating with each other.
‘Wow-wow-wow’ barks are mostly heard during the winter but can be heard regularly each evening up until May. They can also be heard from young cubs when first venturing from the earth.
Single yells – ‘whooaa’ – are usually heard during early winter but can be heard any time of year.
It is still difficult to understand the meaning of them fully. My own theory is that they are both used as contact calls and from rearing orphaned cubs I know that both ‘wow wow’ and single yells ‘whooaa’ would be used when they were hungry and calling for food.
During the summer, single yells are used by the adults to warn cubs of danger from an intruder, such as man. Other sounds made are growls, screams, ghekkering, hiccuping, whining and a number of other eerie indescribable noises. Some foxes are more vocal in certain areas than others. We have no explanation for this. Loud constant wails can be heard at the peak of the mating period, often when a pair are copulating.
It is a good idea to keep a diary of when and where barking is heard during the winter months plus any other vocalisation throughout the year. Note the time and date for each evening when barking is heard and this will give you a pattern of the foxes’ movements after a time and you will learn at what times of year barking is mostly heard and how vocal foxes are in a certain area.
“The Complete Fox”
by Les Stocker. (Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1994)
by Minoru Taketazu. (John Weatherhill, 1979)
“Running With the Fox”
by David MacDonald. (Unwin Hyman, 1987)
“The Red Fox”
by HG Lloyd. (Batsford, London, 1980)
by Stephen Harris. (Whittet Books, 1986)
by Roger Burrows. (David & Charles, 1968)
“Free Spirit, A Brush With a Fox”
by Michael Chambers. (Methuan, London, 1990)
“Town Fox, Country Fox”
by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald. (Andre Deutch, 1965)
by Hugh Kolb. (Whittet Books, 1996)
“A Fox’s Tale”
by R. Page. (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1986)
“The Handbook of British Mammals”
by GB Corbet and Stephen Harris. (3rd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1991)
“Wild Dogs of the World”
by L E Bueler. (Constable, London 1974)
“Rabies and Wildlife”
by David MacDonald. (Oxford University Press, 1980)
“The Blood is Wild”
by Bridget MacCaskill. (Johnathon Cape, 1995)
Information compiled and written by Peter Akokan
© Peter Akokan