One very sneaky arctic fox

By |Published On: August 8, 2023|Categories: Europe, Svalbard|918 words|3 Comments|


One of the animals that I (David) had been very keen to see in Svalbard, perhaps even more keen to see than polar bears to be honest, was the arctic fox. I am very fond of foxes and have been since my school days when I spent time watching them along the Molonglo River near Canberra. They are fascinating animals to watch hunting, so intense and focused, and at other times so curious and playful. So arctic fox had been very high on my list of ‘things I want to see in Svalbard’.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed. We had seen arctic fox on a number of occasions, poking along the shoreline or hopping from rock to boulder through scree slopes; soft blue-brown smudges on quick, tan legs, always searching and always intent. Lovely though these sightings were, the fox in question had always been a couple of hundred metres away, and we had always been on Yuma and therefore unable to follow it.

Assessing the fish situation.

So I was delighted when, as we paused on the oil-soaked gravel amid the machinery on the loading platform of the Barentsburg wharf, a blue-brown form came trotting down the hill slope, cut under the long wooden staircase that climbed up to the town, paused to let a roaring truck thump past, then skirting some abandoned machinery headed across the wharf and stopped, alert and expectant, its eyes fixed on the lone fisherman that stood on the opposite side.


It took a little while for the fisherman to turn away from the sea and notice the fox, poised, still and expectant, but when he did, he smiled and, reaching down into a crate he had next to him, he pulled out a fish. As the fisherman leaned down, the fox lowered himself into a half crouch and, as the fisherman stood up again and threw the fish towards it, the fox sprang forward, snatching it up before its second bounce.

Meal delivery.

Fish secured, the fox scooted back across the wharf, skirted around a gaggle of workers in conversation, and deposited its fish under a rusting piece of machinery. Then, without a pause, it turned and returned to its watch position, four metres from the fisherman.

Waiting, expectant.

Again, after a short pause he threw a fish towards the fox which immediately snatched it up. This time, however, the fish was slightly smaller and the fox must have thought that it could do better, so rather than taking it back to the machinery, it stood its ground and waited. The fisherman smiled wryly and obliged and another fish came winging over. After a few moments manoeuvring to get both fish securely between its jaws, the fox nipped back to its fish depository, dropped its load, and scooted back to wait, poised and ready.

An excellent partnership.


This process continued until the fox had accumulated a pile of 6 or 7 fish under the machinery, some still alive and flicking listlessly and ever less frequently. The pile looked like it was about half the fox’s body weight and this, it seemed, was sufficient because now it began to sort out how it could transport this wealth back to its den.

Picking all the fish up at once wasn’t possible and so began a process of picking each fish up in turn and then trying to pick up another fish to pair with it. It took some time to find the optimal first load but, once that was done, the fox trotted off back across the loading yard, under the steps and back up the hill with its first load. A short while later it reappeared to repeat the process until all the fish were safely removed.

This one? No, maybe this one, hmm.

I was delighted. I had worried that I wouldn’t get any quality time with arctic fox and here, in the oily, dusty grime of a Russian coal terminal, with machinery roaring just a few yards away and people and vehicles moving around, I had been treated to a ringside seat on fox behaviour. Loved it.


What was going on here? Why would a fox want so many large fish, it couldn’t eat them all in one hit? There may have been a couple of things at play here. First, our fox may have still been feeding cubs back in its den and at this late stage in the season the cubs were likely be well on the way to independence. That would presumably mean they were hungry teenagers easily able to clean out any pantry, no matter how well stocked, so give me another fish, mister.

But arctic foxes are also animals that plan for the hard times ahead. While their foraging resources are available year round, they do, unsurprisingly, become restricted during the winter months when shorelines freeze and snow makes tracking ptarmigan harder. To help themselves make it through these lean months, arctic foxes cache food items in safe locations during the summer months and then retrieve them when needed during the winter. In the cold, dry conditions of Svalbard these fish will likely dry well before they rot, leaving the fox with a supply of hard woody fish to gnaw on during those long, cold winter months. This is exactly what the human populations of Norway’s Arctic coastline have done for centuries, so it is a strategy that works.


  1. Caro immin September 11, 2023 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    Fantastisch gezicht. Wat een mooi vosje.

  2. Jim September 16, 2023 at 6:38 am - Reply

    An unlikely situation for your yearned-for encounter with an Arctic fox David, but judging from the behaviour it’s one the fox (and the fisherman) has repeated time and again. How exciting! And what a bleak and grimy industrial setting!

    • David Westcott September 16, 2023 at 8:01 pm - Reply

      Not the pristine wildlife watching experience I had expected, Jim, but no complaints from me whatsoever. Like foxes in all sorts of places these animals have worked out how to use us to their advantage. The bloke fishing enjoyed it almost as much as the fox I reckon.

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