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The Red Fox In Britain
The Fox In Literature
No animal has featured in mythology more than the fox. Most stories focus on one of three themes: their cunning, their tendency to commit evil deeds and the damage that they can cause.
The ancient fable writer Aesop was an admirer of foxes: they feature in 51 of his 600 fables. As in the story of ‘The Fox and the Crow,’ when a fox flatters a crow into dropping its food, the fox usually comes off best. Often, as with Leos Janacek’s 1924 opera ‘The Cunning Little Vixen,’ the foxy hero is a vessel for exploring complex human emotions.
The rise of foxhunting in the past 250 years has provided a new source of tales regarding vulpine cunning. A classic example is that of a fox running along a railway line in front of a train, only to leap out of the way at the last moment, leaving the slower hounds to be mown down. An integral part of such stories is that, once the fox feels safe, it takes up a vantage from which to watch the confusion it has created.
Foxes have long been associated with evil. Medieval church carvings, for example, depict foxes as the Devil dressed in clerical garb. Fox spirits or witches appear in mythologies from Druidic to Shinto religions. Mythology about the depredations of the fox is less common. In the past, the wolf was seen as the main killer of livestock (and in mythology was generally outwitted by the fox). ‘Fox eating chickens’ stories are a more recent issue. Surprisingly, most have appeared in the past 50 years, in a period when most chickens have been shut up in battery farms, safe from foxes.
But these stories are not the only fox myths. Have you hear the modern one about vanloads of urban foxes being dumped in the countryside, where they die a slow and lingering death (or are put out of their misery by a passing gamekeeper)? It was always a white van and the sighting was always by ‘a friend’ or ‘someone else.’ The story is a complete and total myth: who could realistically catch enough foxes to fill a van in a big city without being noticed?
It’s a fabricated story that’s persisted for 40 years and is still regularly repeated in the press. The articles ‘helpfully’ tell you how to recognise these kidnapped foxes: their claws are worn down from walking on pavements; they don’t know how to hunt; they have grey, mangy coats; they play with packs of hounds rather than run from them, and so on. It’s all nonsense, but it proves that the fox myth industry is alive and kicking.
Red Fox Distribution
More On The Red Fox's Natural History
Foxes were widespread in Britain soon after the end of the last Ice Age. Early human inhabitants of the British Isles hunted foxes for their fur and, surprisingly, for food. In some middens of human settlements, fox bones are second in importance only to red deer.
However, we know very little about foxes in Britain until after 1566, when an Act for the Preservation of Grayne declared a range of species to be pests. This act enabled churchwardens to pay a bounty on the corpses of species killed in their parish; these bounty payments help to provide a valuable historical record of the red fox in Britain.
Foxes were the commonest species to feature in these records, and it’s clear that large numbers were being killed. They also show that foxes were not evenly distributed across Britain, with more being killed in the South-west, the Marches of Kent, upland Wales and northern England. Foxes were rarer in lowland agricultural areas, which may explain why these locations had to be stocked with foxes when modern foxhunting became popular.
It’s also evident that, even though large numbers of foxes were being killed, there was little decrease in overall numbers. This was to change with the rise of pheasant shooting in Victorian times. To ensure that there were enough birds for their masters to shoot, an army of gamekeepers killed anything that might eat them. Improved guns and a variety of new traps helped. Perhaps even more damaging was the widespread use of poisons. The gamekeepers were successful to the extent that foxes were eliminated from much of East Anglia and parts of eastern Scotland, and have only recently recovered in these areas.
With the decline of game keeping after the First World War, foxes increased again and their numbers have changed little over the past 25 years. During that period, there have been three attempts to estimate fox numbers in Britain. Though different techniques were used, all three came up with the same answer: 250,000 adult foxes at the start of the breeding season. Each year about 425,000 cubs are born. For the fox population to remain stable, 425,000 foxes have to die before the next breeding season. It’s a truly astonishing figure.
Today, you can see foxes anywhere in Britain, and in any habitat, from coastal saltmarshes, where they hunt crabs and voles, to the tops of our tallest mountains, where they scavenge dead sheep. But foxes are not uniformly distributed across Britain today. In the countryside, the highest densities occur in south-west England and through the Welsh borders to southern Scotland. Lower densities occur in eastern England and Scotland. This is because foxes prefer a diverse habitat; they like to hunt along the edges of fields, woodlands and similar boundaries. So the large open spaces of eastern Britain are less attractive to them.
Foxes fight over territories, to establish rank in the social hierarchy and for access to females in season. They start by standing up on their hind-legs, with their forefeet on each other's chests, and engage in a pushing match, with their heads held back, while making a 'kekkering' noise.
During fights, foxes also bite each other on the face and forelegs and, if one turns to run, it may be pursued and bitten on the rump. Occasionally, very nasty wounds are inflicted and one of the combatants may even be killed.
An Intimate Encounter
Whenever you see a fox, it is invariably alone. Yet foxes are social, playful animals, and live in extended family groups that share a territory. Groups range in size from a pair and their offspring of that year to up to 10 adults. Where there are several adults in a group, the females tend to be closely related, while the males are not.
Foxes live in a world of smells and use scent to communicate with each other. They leave their faeces as signposts in conspicuous places including outside rabbit warrens, on dead animals or on interesting objects, such as shoes left in your garden. But it’s unclear whether they use faeces to mark territories. They certainly do this with urine, leaving dozens of scent marks every night, with generally just a few drops at each location. But the smell can be powerful, and is particularly pungent on misty autumn mornings.
The time you are most likely to see a group of foxes is in the breeding season, when a vixen has cubs. Cubs are usually born in mid-March and remain underground for the first four weeks of life before starting to emerge cautiously. They remain in the vicinity of their earth until mid-June. Thereafter, they lie up above ground in dense cover, a rendezvous site that is the focus for the fox family’s ‘get togethers’ – bouts of play and feeding times (when parents return with food).
Fox cubs are largely fed by their parents until July, when they start to hunt for themselves in earnest. They get little hunting training from their parents, so are dependent on easily caught prey such as earthworms. If July is wet, worms are plentiful and the cubs do well. But a dry July means they have trouble finding food- and this is likely to stunt their growth, particularly in male cubs.
Since growing cubs forage by themselves, they are vulnerable to predators- other foxes, eagles in Scotland, badgers, dogs and cars. So they are very cautious about where they go, only using the central part of their parents’ territory, where they are most secure. By mid-summer, they are still only using half of their parents’ territory. Despite their caution, this is still a period of high cub mortality, and typically only half the youngsters in a litter make it through to the autumn. The survivors then disperse to find their own territories.
Fox Vs. Rabbit
The Chicken Raid
The Country Fox
Many people believe that there more foxes in urban areas than in rural areas, through the simple fact that it’s much easier to see a fox in the city than in the countryside. However, this long held perception is not true: despite the abundance of urban foxes, roughly 86 per cent of the British fox population lives in the countryside. It’s just that rural foxes tend to be more wary of people. However, once they get accustomed to somebody, rural foxes can become extremely trusting.
Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that country foxes can be as confiding as urbanites, since they are often the same individual animals. Studies have shown that fox cubs born in the middle of Bristol, later dispersed out of the city and spent the rest of their lives living on top of the Mendip Hills, some 15 miles away. Other foxes have moved out of the city for a few months or a year or two, sometimes even breeding in the countryside, only to return to where they were born and resume city life.
With a steady movement of foxes into and out of our cities, it is hard to see how there could be any differences between country and urban foxes.
While there is great debate in the countryside as to the extent of economic losses caused by foxes there is less argument surrounding their economic benefits. Most agricultural damage is caused by rabbits, and this can be considerable. Yet in lowland areas, rabbits comprise 45 to 70 per cent of the diet of foxes, and appear to be the most common (and hence cause the greatest losses to farmers) in areas where more predators are killed. One study estimated that over its lifetime, each fox was worth £150 and £900 in increased revenue to farmers due to rabbit consumption. I’m sure you’ll agree that is a very strong argument against the killing of foxes.
A Map Highlighting All Of The Major Urban Areas Of Britain
Foxes And Roads
Even in urban areas, where you might think foxes would get used to cars, they are still very cautious about crossing roads. Busier roads often form the boundaries of territories, so the foxes only have to cross minor residential roads during their nightly wanderings, and even these they cross warily. Yet despite their caution, a third of adult foxes have healed fractures, probably the result of past collisions with cars.
A Useful Link
- Meet the Foxes | Foxes Live
A link to a Channel 4 documentary that revealed the lives of red foxes and the humans that live alongside them.
The Urban Fox
With foxes now so well established in British cities, it’s hard to believe that their appearance is a relatively new phenomenon. As late as the 1960s, people were still unsure whether foxes were really living in our towns and cities, or just commuting in at night to forage in gardens and pick up a few hand-outs.
This all changed in 1967 when Bunny Teagle published his seminal study on foxes in London. He showed just how widespread they were, and that they had been present in the capital’s suburbs from at least the 1940s.
It soon became clear that foxes were common in many cities throughout Britain. But why had they suddenly colonised our towns? In fact, as Teagle had already shown for London, it wasn’t a recent phenomenon at all. Foxes actually started to move in during the 1930s; it just took a long time for people to realise that there really were foxes in our cities. By the 1960s foxes had already reached the centre of London; one was run over outside Waterloo railway station (an incident heralded by the inevitable press headline ‘Fox meets its Waterloo’).
But why did they move in? Many experts have suggested ideas, but none of them are based on fact. One theory is that foxes were short of food. In fact, during the 1930s, rats and rabbits were abundant in rural areas. Another theory is that foxes moved in because myxomatosis decimated the rabbit population in the early 1950s. Again, not true: foxes moved into our cities 20 years earlier.
The real reason is actually much simpler: until the 1930s, land prices were high and we built high-density housing with small gardens. The 1930s heralded a new style of house: semi-detached and suburban. In a decade, the size of London grew four-fold due to the rapid spread of this new, low-density housing. The larger gardens were ideal for foxes, providing both food and shelter, and the animals soon moved in to exploit this new habitat. Even today, foxes are abundant in areas of 1930s housing.
Since they have been established in many urban areas for up to 70 years, it is also untrue that fox numbers are increasing. In Bristol, for instance, there was a long period of stability, from at least the late 1960s to 1994. Then mange decimated the population. In Bristol, fox numbers are only slowly recovering following the spread of the disease- today their numbers are only a fifth of what they were in 1994. The same has happened in many other cities in Britain.
The Dustbin Myth
The well known dustbin myth has been perpetuated by some well known photos showing a dustbin lying on its side with the rubbish spilled out and a fox peering in. No fox is strong enough to tip a dustbin over, and the foxes featured are often very fat- a sure sign that they are captive, not wild.
Are Foxes Really A Problem In Urban Areas?
Dispelling Urban Myths
There are innumerable myths about urban foxes, and many of them centre on greedy and/or desperate foxes raiding dustbins and massacring pets. Fox hunters often refer disparagingly to urban foxes as ‘dustbin foxes,’ yet in reality they rarely bother to touch bins. Why should they, when far better quality food is left out for them by local residents?
The same applies to the killing of pets, such as rabbits and cats. Most urban foxes never attack pets. Several years ago a study was conducted to test the validity of the myth; it involved conducting a survey of every single pet in the north-west area of Bristol that had been lost over a period of one year. The results were that even if you assumed that every pet that had disappeared had been taken by a fox, it turned out that the maximum loss was 0.2 pets per fox per year, which works out as one pet eaten every five years. Given that the majority of urban foxes don’t even reach the age of five, it suggests that most will never eat a domestic pet.
Worried pet owners can take steps to further reduce even these extremely low losses to foxes. One simple precaution is to keep small pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs in well secured hutch at night.
As for cats, well, just take a moment to think about the weapons that each animal possesses. The fox has its teeth, but cats have four razor sharp claws on the end of each paw giving it a significant advantage. The fox instinctively knows this, and thus rarely enter into fights with cats, as they will always lose and are also reluctant to risk injury when faced with such a powerful foe.
What To Feed Foxes?
- Meat and bones: The meat can be fresh, cooked or tinned, and the bones can be raw or cooked. Despite the stories, it's okay to feed foxes chicken bones.
- Eggs: Raw or boiled.
- Savoury foods: Foxes like cheese, peanuts and bird seed- so much so that they often jump up to knock down birdfeeders.
- Dog food: The bonus with this is that cats tend to ignore it. Cats also usually ignore sandwiches filled with jam, honey or peanut butter, but foxes love these.
What Happens When Foxes Become Accustomed To Humans
- BBC NEWS | UK | England | Baby 'attacked by fox'
The parents of a 14-week old baby say he was attacked by a fox while sleeping in their Dartford home. The fox was likely attracted by the smell of warm milk and because it had lost its fear of man had no qualms about entering a human home.
- BBC News - Mother's 'nightmare' after baby twins 'mauled' by fox
The mother of twin babies describes her "living nightmare" after they were mauled by a fox in east London. Another example of what happens when a fox loses its natural fear of man.
How Foxes Still Generate Controversy
Foxes living in urban areas rely heavily on food put out for them. While they have an abundance of wild food- small mammals such as voles and wood mice, small birds, pigeons, insects and earthworms. In fact, the food supplied by householders makes up less than half of their diet.
So you may wonder why to bother feeding them at all when they already have so much to eat. Well, it can give you a unique insight into their world, as consistent feeding makes foxes much less wary, and they will often be waiting for you when you go out to feed them. This gives you the chance to learn to recognise them as individuals and follow them through their lives. You’ll quickly discover that fox life is far more entertaining than any soap opera, with family feuds, infidelity, fights, struggles for dominance in the group hierarchy and very noisy mating.
There are, however, a few things you should never do. Most importantly, never feed foxes by hand. If they become hand-tame, foxes may well approach other residents for food, and some people find it frightening to have a fox boldly walk up to them, expecting to be fed.
Never encourage foxes into your house or porch. Foxes that get into the habit of being fed in kitchens or encouraged into houses through cat-flaps are also likely to enter other houses where their unexpected presence could cause mayhem.
Finally, be sure not to over-feed your foxes. If you give them more food than they can handle, two problems are likely to occur. First they will spend far too much time in and around your garden, since they do not have to spend much time foraging, and this can lead to excessive fouling in and damage to your neighbours’ gardens.
The other problem is that an excess of food may encourage young foxes to stay at home rather than disperse in the autumn. The end result is a fairly large social group, which again can irritate and annoy your neighbours.