Friday Book – The Hidden Life of the Fox by Adele Brand

Dear Readers, if you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a confirmed foxophile (not sure if that’s a word) so when my friend A lent me this book I couldn’t wait to dive in. My previous go-to work on foxes was ‘Fox Watching – In the Shadow of the Fox’ by Martin Hemmington, who had been rescuing and rehabilitating foxes in the UK for over 25 years, and who was the founder of the National Fox Welfare Society (NFWS). What I loved about the latter book was the author’s close observation of foxes, both in the wild and when under his care, and his obvious deep passion and empathy for them. ‘Fox Watching’ was going to be a hard act to follow.

‘The Hidden World of the Fox‘ ranges more widely. Brand is a mammal ecologist, and has led research in five countries. She brings a scientist’s eye to many fox controversies, and there were many things here that I didn’t know. She roundly debunks many of the ideas about fox deterrence, for example: why would male urine frighten an urban fox when they spend all their days hanging around our streets? And why would lion dung from the zoo frighten a fox when, in many countries, foxes rely on top predators to kill prey too big for them to manage, so that they can scavenge the remains later? You might think that lion dung would attract foxes rather than deter them.

Interestingly, Brand points out that the one thing that might work, if consistently applied, is one of the sprays such as Scoot which disguise the scents that foxes use to mark their territories. A fox without a territory is in constant danger of attack by other foxes, and can never rest, so this might persuade the animal to move on.

Quite why you’d want them to move on is a mystery to me, however.

A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.

Brand also explores the ‘human/fox interface’. We have, of course, impinged on the fox’s territory, rather than the other way round, and it’s interesting to see how intolerant we are of the mess that foxes undoubtedly create if rubbish is not suitably binned. In a study that Brand conducted in London, over 33% of Londoners apparently said that they disliked foxes, largely because of their scats, the way they could scatter the contents of a dustbin bag over half the street, and the way that they dug up garden plants, stole anything left in the garden and murdered inadequately-housed rabbits. A surprising number of people were also afraid that the foxes would kill their cats and mutilate their children. I am being a bit flippant here: I have had a dog-fox visit who was so tame that he would cheerfully have come into the house, and there is one case of twin infants being bitten by a fox who entered the room that they were sleeping in.

Dog Fox in my garden last year.

Brand has very clear guidelines on interactions with foxes, and with people who are afraid of foxes, or dislike them:

  • Do not hand-feed them, or allow them to come into the house
  • If you are going to put a small amount of food out for them, put it a distance from the entrance to the property
  • Do not deny that foxes can cause problems, but make people aware of the efficacy of products such as Scoot
  • Do not assume that all fox bite stories are either untrue or the fault of the people bitten

A reason for overfriendliness that I don’t remember Brand writing about (though I might have missed it as the book has no index), is toxoplasmosis: this parasite is known for making its hosts reckless, and certainly Martin Hemmington thinks that it might be responsible for all kinds of peculiar behaviour. In rats, toxoplasmosis has been shown to make the animal less afraid of cats (the parasite is passed on in the droppings of carnivores). There was even a study that showed that humans with toxoplasmosis (occasionally picked up from cleaning out the cat litter tray) are more likely to be involved in road accidents, both as pedestrians and as drivers. It’s easy to imagine that an infected fox might wander into a basement floor through an open door and, maybe smelling the milk on an infant’s breath, start to look for the source.

Young fox

Another point where Brand and Hemmington differ is on the whole subject of treating mange with homeopathy (often Psorinum 30c). Hemmington’s charity actually provides free homeopathic treatment for foxes with mild mange: you might remember that I spent some time treating a vixen with mange in our local cemetery by lacing jam sandwiches with homeopathic drops.

Brand points out that

‘Psorinum 30c has become a major feature of many charities’ anti-mange efforts. It is much easier to obtain than Ivermection because a vet does not need to prescribe it. Unfortunately, that is because homeopathic treatments are medically inert: they are a discredited invention from the eighteenth century that has become a multi-million-pound industry‘.

She does, however, point out one possible beneficial side-effect:

It is possible that homeopathy can have an unintended benefit; by putting out regular food with the dose, a home owner may support the fox’s general health and assist its fight against the disease‘.

She also points out that:

Once mange progresses beyond the early stages, many foxes suffer a terminal deterioration of their symptoms. But in others, the condition reverses. The bare blotchy skin patches and lesions remain, but the mites die, and the fox gradually heals‘.

I had little faith that using Psorinum 30c would do any good, being something of a homeopathy sceptic: I know that acupuncture, herbalism, reflexology and a host of other alternative medicine techniques can have positive value, but the scientist in me baulks at homeopathy. However, the little vixen that I was treating did improve over the course of the summer, and whether it was the jam sandwiches or the homeopathic medicine, that was a good result. The one great thing about homeopathy is that it is guaranteed, at the very least, to do no harm, unlike the many medicines given to humans and animals that have long-lasting and sometimes serious side effects.

The fox I was treating in March 2016

So, I enjoyed Brand’s book – she has an obvious objectivity and a scientific approach, and she casts her net rather wider than Hemmington does in his book. But I didn’t love it. The focus seems to be more on the relationship between humans and foxes, particularly in urban areas, rather than the foxes themselves. I found the lack of an index really frustrating. The book seems to fall into the hinterland between a scientific study and a personal account, and so, for me, it doesn’t fulfill the promise of either approach. But any work that seeks to help us understand our wild neighbours and their habits is to be warmly welcomed. I look forward to seeing what Brand does going forward. Foxes need all the friends they can get.

The dog fox from the cemetery

The vixen waiting patiently for her dinner

10 thoughts on “Friday Book – The Hidden Life of the Fox by Adele Brand

  1. sllgatsby

    What amazing pictures! When my son and I were in Brighton a couple of years ago, we were thrilled to see an urban fox. Our hostess was somewhat amused by this, but having read about them in so many British children’s books, it was like a celebrity sighting for us! We do have foxes here, but we’re much more likely to see a coyote or raccoon in Seattle than a fox.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks sllgatsby – I was equally excited to see a raccoon sitting halfway up a tree when I was in Toronto last year. And I’ve heard coyotes in Ontario, but have only seen them from a distance in Monterey…

  2. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    You’re right they do need all the friends they can get especially with all the hysteria whipped up by the media. We have had many foxes visit us over the years, the latest one Stumpy has no tail, just a little ‘powder puff’ we often wonder what happened to it. He’s very partial to sausages but of course likes something sweet too. We consider ourselves very lucky to share our gardens with these beautiful creatures .

    1. Bug Woman

      Yes, the book is very clear about media nonsense, and also the pointlessness of the culls that are often called for (not just for foxes but for birds like magpies too). If a population is disrupted by culling, other foxes/magpies will move in to fill up the gap. Humans have such a sense of entitlement sometimes. It will be the death of us if we’re not careful….

  3. Anne

    Although we do not generally get ‘urban jackals’, the black-backed jackal gets very bad press -particularly among sheep farmers – who blame them for anything and everything bad that befalls their sheep. I love seeing them in our national parks and observing their complex social interactions with each other.

    1. Bug Woman

      I remember seeing a little one-eyed jackal in Botswana who had spotted a leopard and was bravely yipping at it in an attempt to drive it off. I really like these feisty little dogs. I imagine most of the time they are scavenging sheep carcasses that have died for some other reason, and are then getting the blame for killing them….

  4. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    We have a local fox (maybe even two). We hear it barking more often than not but I did see it near the bend in our road and a neighbour took a picture of it sitting in our garden. (One of the issues of living on the first and second floors is that you don’t often see what’s going on on the ground below). Hope you enjoy the alpine flowers in my recent posts. šŸ˜Š

  5. Charlie Bowman

    Wonderfully evocative photographs, tinged with sadness how certain people treat foxes in the name of satisfying something that is missing from their lives.


Leave a Reply