All of the fox photos this week are copyrighted by John Humble – many thanks to John for being my guest photographer. What great photographs they are!
Yesterday, at 7 a.m., my husband called me downstairs.
“There’s a fox under the bird table!”, he whispered. And there she was, delicately picking through the suet pellets for something edible. Something in my heart softened. A healthy fox is such a glorious animal, copper and frost, taut as a spring and yet confident. In an urban environment, a fox feels like a magical gift, one that can lift my spirits for a whole day. However often I see them, they are always a small glimpse of the wild world, and a reminder that not so long ago this area was not a suburb, but one of the most unruly areas of common ground in all of London: Finchley Common, home of Highwaymen and criss-crossed with fox tracks.
Later in the morning, as I went out to the shed to get some more bird food, there was a scuffle and the fox bolted out from her hiding place and away over the fence. As I peered into her refuge, I could see where she’d curled up under the ivy, snug and hidden amongst the foliage.
Last week I went to Foxycology, a London event organised by the League Against Cruel Sports. They are aiming to contest some of the many untruths that have grown up around foxes, especially at a time when there is a real threat that the Hunting Ban will be repealed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the arcane ways of country sports, it is currently illegal in the UK to hunt foxes with dogs – instead, hunts have to follow a trail of scent that is laid in advance (drag-hunting). However, if the hounds pick up the scent of a fox and kill it, well, it’s difficult to prevent (apparently). The Hunting Act also permits up to two dogs to flush a fox towards someone who will shoot it. And even this small measure of protection is now under threat. If the Conservatives are elected in May, they have promised to reinstate the old situation, where, as Oscar Wilde put it, the Unspeakable are in pursuit of the Uneatable.
In towns, there have been a number of horror stories in the press, in which foxes have have been demonised. There was the case in Hackney where a fox apparently entered a basement flat on a warm evening and bit two sleeping babies. There was a case in The Sun where a woman apparently had her finger bitten off by a fox. This was rather contradicted by a two-page spread with a photo of the ‘maimed’ woman holding up her hands which appeared to have a full complement of fingers. Furthermore, she had grabbed the fox, who had wandered into her house, and that was when she was bitten. To be honest, I would expect the same outcome (and worse) if I picked up a frightened feral cat.
So, what is the truth about foxes, as revealed at Foxycology?
First of all, the papers will tell us that fox numbers are increasing, both in the town and in the country. In fact, there are approximately 225,000 rural foxes, and about 33,000 urban ones. These numbers have held steady since 2001, although urban foxes have increased their range and are now seen in more cities. Furthermore, in urban areas some foxes are becoming bolder, which gives an impression of an increased population.
The second untruth is that foxes are responsible for a high proportion of lamb and chicken losses in rural areas. Defra’s own figures show that 95% of lamb losses are due to husbandry issues, and that less than 1% of lamb deaths are due to fox predation. Often, foxes are seen scavenging lamb carcasses and are then blamed for the deaths. In the case of chickens, the estimate is that foxes are responsible for less than 2% of deaths where the poultry are kept indoors at night. Furthermore, whilst foxes, like most predators, will kill more than they can immediately eat if they manage to get into a hen house, given a chance they will cache the food to eat later. The predation of farm animals by foxes is also offset by the number of rabbits that they kill, which benefits arable farmers to the tune of about £200 a year (£900 over the fox’s lifetime).
The third untruth is that culling foxes is effective. In both rural and urban areas, a fox territory which is left vacant will be occupied in less than four days. This is so often the case – it applies equally to the culling of magpies, crows and many other predators. Furthermore, the animals that move into the vacant territories are likely to be young, inexperienced animals which will look for the easiest possible food source because they don’t have the skills to catch wild prey. This means that they are more likely to look to domestic animals as a source of food.
Of course, I was particularly interested in city foxes. The speaker was Dr Dawn Scott, who has been studying the behaviour of urban foxes. In Brighton, a number of animals were radio-collared, so that they could be tracked during their nightly excursions. The maps were like abstract paintings, with lines showing where the animals had been. On an average night, an urban fox will travel about 3.5 km, but in the Brighton study, they seemed to spend a lot of time in two particular gardens. This was where the foxes were fed.
Feeding foxes is an area fraught with controversy. The message from Foxycology was, in general, not to feed, and certainly not to feed too much – some houses were leaving out two whole shopping bags full of scraps every night, and the foxes were becoming obese. But there are always exceptions. The fox that is injured, the fox that has mange (there are medications that can be administered through food), the fox that is already tame, these may all require a different approach. It is so hard, sometimes, knowing what is best for a wild animal, especially one which appears vulnerable. But there are various organisations, such as The Fox Project (details at the bottom of the article) who are able to help and advise. The Fox Project takes a humane approach to fox deterrence too, and has proven to be more effective in helping with ‘problem foxes’ than the use of terriers and poison.
I am intrigued by my visiting fox. Is she a pregnant female, I wonder? Most of us are familiar with the shrieks and general carry-on in the winter as foxes mate and pair up, and I knew that male foxes keep company with vixens for a few weeks during the breeding season. What I didn’t know was that the males will often help to provide food for the cubs, and also that the cubs from the previous year may stay with their mother and also help to raise the next generation.
The talk that intrigued me the most at Foxycology, though, wasn’t by a scientist, interesting as they were. It was by Patrick Barkham, author of The Butterfly Isles and, more recently, Badgerlands. He showed us some slides of foxes in myth and legend – the cunning fox of Aesop and La Fontaine, the ‘Foxy Lady’ of Jimi Hendrix, and asked this question: how much do we really know about the fox, as an animal, and how much of what we know is all about the projection of our own needs and desires? For me, this is a constant battle. I can admire the idea of the fox or the coyote as a trickster, and acknowledge that both animals are adaptable, intelligent and opportunistic. But when does the stereotyping of an animal reflect more about us than about the animal itself? Can an animal really be ‘cunning’ for example (the word that I suspect is most often used in conjunction with the word ‘fox’)?. In Barkham’s talk he was, I think, asking us to take a step back and think about having a relationship with the real animal, rather than turning it mentally into a little person in a rust-coloured furry suit. And that is the real challenge. How can we empathise with an animal and still recognise that it has different needs from our own?
The Fox Project website can be found here: it has lots of helpful information about what to do if you are worried about a fox, or if you want to discourage one humanely.
For more information about Dr Dawn Scott’s Fox Project in Brighton, there is a BBC article here.