Dear Readers, as you will know I am a great fan of our urban foxes, and so I was looking forward to this talk very much. Prof. Scott did one of the earliest and most extensive studies of urban foxes in Bristol, and much of what she found has greatly informed our understanding of these animals.
Prof. Scott is very interested in how animals adapt to urban landscapes, and why some do better than others. She describes cities as ‘landscapes of fear and opportunity’. The opportunities include that cities are warmer, there are less predators, more food (especially as people deliberately feed year-round), lots of niches for refuge, and consistent water supplies. There is, however, less natural food, more competition, a higher risk of disease as territories tend to be smaller, danger from the roads, from some pets, and also, of course, a high risk of conflict with people. The animals that tend to do best are enterprising generalists – this includes foxes, but also badgers (who are increasingly being seen in the suburbs) and hedgehogs (who are now commoner in urban areas than in many places in the countryside).
Prof. Scott described how adaptation to city life for an animal usually includes an increased density of animals (as there are more food resources), higher aggression (because of competition for those resources) and much less fear of humans – this is known as ‘synurbanisation’. She considers that the extraordinary ability of the fox to navigate the 3-dimensional structures of the city to be one of its key skills in making the city its home – she tells of finding foxes living on roofs and in trees. Anyone who has seen a fox effortlessly bound over a six-foot fence will be nodding their heads in agreement.
Prof. Scott believes that an understanding of the fox would help to offset some of the hostility that people feel towards the animal. Socially, foxes tend to live in groups of 3 or 4 – typically a small ‘family’. However, foxes forage for food on their own once they’re into adolescence. They communicate mainly by smell, which explains the piles of poo and that heavy ‘foxy’ smell that they produce – it’s thought that the scent messages might include sex, breeding status and even dominance. As anyone who has been woken up in the night also knows, foxes communicate by sound too – there are over 28 different calls, including the screaming of vixens, the barking of dog foxes and the various bouts of yipping that can enliven many an early morning. However, the screaming is only likely to be heard in December – February, when the vixens are in heat and, apart from a lot of chaos when the cubs leave the den in May, foxes are generally fairly quiet for the rest of the year. Females will have a natal den where the cubs are born (frequently under a garden shed it seems), but they will move the cubs if disturbed, and adult foxes will have several rest sites in their territory where they hide during the day. They are largely, but not exclusively, nocturnal, as the foxes who turn up in my garden will attest.
Only one in five foxes will live to be two years old, with roads claiming the majority of victims. In captivity, foxes can live ten to fourteen years on average.
On the vexed question of whether we were becoming ‘overrun’ with urban foxes, Prof. Scott looked back through the records, and had done several scientific studies of her own. Her view was that urban foxes had certainly spread – in the 1980’s, 91% of cities had no urban foxes, but now most of them did, with the foxes spreading north and west. Her study in Bristol showed that there were approximately 36 foxes per square kilometre. However, in 2010 a devastating outbreak of mange killed 95% of the foxes in the city.
Prof. Scott showed several photos of foxes, some with mange, some who were simply shedding their winter coats. One way of telling is obviously bare, sore flesh, but a real giveaway seems to be if the tails are looking scratty – this is a clear sign of mange. Healthier foxes seem to be able to just shrug it off, but for foxes already weakened by bad nutrition it can be a death sentence. Furthermore, there’s no easy solution: the jury is out on the homeopathic solution that can be given without harm (and possibly without any positive effects either) but the normal veterinary treatment can only be given under controlled circumstances. Furthermore, Prof. Scott found that foxes who were taken into sanctuaries for treatment and then released back into their old territories nearly always found that a new fox had taken over their old home, and the original incumbents were usually driven out, with all the concomitant dangers of being run over as they searched for a new territory. Prof. Scott’s opinion was that, hard as it seems, mange is something that limits the numbers of foxes in an area when they get too high – it thrives in conditions where there are lots of foxes in close proximity. A more ‘usual’ population of foxes seems to be about 12 foxes per square kilometre, something seen in more recent studies in Bristol (post mange) and London.
High concentrations of foxes are often supported by feeding. In a recent study, Prof. Scott found that 36% of the people in her study fed foxes, mostly either by hand or at the back door. One fox in the study spent his whole time waiting outside the house where he was fed at 8 p.m. and then moving to house number two where he was fed at 10 p.m. There are issues around what was fed (foxes definitely like jam sandwiches but are unlikely to make them for themselves), and the danger of allowing foxes to associate people with food. Some of the more lurid headlines seem to feature foxes who feel perfectly comfortable going into people’s houses and making themselves at home, often biting people when cornered. Prof. Scott’s advice is to feed little, feed something appropriate (like dog food) and not to feed too close to the house, and certainly never by hand.
And finally, one of the questions that Prof. Scott is frequently asked is ‘do foxes kill cats?’ Well, we’ll never know for sure that there isn’t a rogue fox out there with a taste for felines, but judging by the trail camera evidence, a solitary cat can see off two foxes who attempt to snaffle her tea. Apparently in all the filmed incidents, the cat beat up the fox. Badgers trump foxes and cats, however, although there was no evidence that badgers actually hurt cats. One film clip showed a hedgehog feeding, at which point a fox picked it up and deposited it elsewhere before coming back to eat the food. It’s easy to see that that’s a situation that could lead to the fox predating the hedgehog.
So, this was a very interesting talk, with a lot of thought given to how people and foxes can live together more harmoniously. Prof. Scott thinks that understanding the fox is key, and I agree – as with everything, knowing the reason for something (such as night time screaming or piles of poo) can make it a lot more bearable. I for one love to see the touch of wildness that the fox brings, and am happy to put up with a little inconvenience for the pleasure of their company.
You can watch the whole of the talk here. Highly recommended.