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The red fox is surely one of the UK’s most beautiful mammals. Sadly, though, this extremely adaptable animal is also one of our most divisive. While many people see every encounter as a joy and a privilege, there are also those who class them as vermin and a vicious predator that needs eradicating. I, for one, think this clever and resourceful creature deserves our respect. From its gorgeous appearance to its cooperative family life, there is much to admire about our foxes. Living in Bristol, I am surrounded by one of the UK’s largest (and well-studied) urban populations so often get to see them, too. Well, at least on camera, anyway!
The red fox is found across Europe, as well as most of Asia and North America. It is also found in North Africa and was introduced to Australia in the 1800s. Because it is so widespread, it has evolved into numerous subspecies with differences in appearance and behaviour. In the UK, our foxes are predominantly a beautiful reddish-brown colour. They have white chests and throats, dark ears and feet and an instantly recognisable bushy tail, or brush.
Many people are surprised by how small foxes are. Instead of the Alsatian size many imagine them to be, they usually only stand about 40cm in height. That amazing tail measures over 70% of the head and body length. When the kits are born in the spring, they are dark brown all over for the first three weeks. They are also born with blue eyes. These change to amber after around four to five weeks.
Foxes tend to live in small family units. A dominant male and female will rear their cubs, often with help from daughters from previous years. Kits are reared in a den, or earth. Urban foxes often make them under sheds. Because vixens can’t leave the kits for the first two weeks or so, the male and any older daughters will bring her food. Any youngsters not staying with the family will disperse in the autumn. Foxes are opportunistic when it comes to food. They will pretty much eat anything, although in rural areas meat makes up the largest part of their diet. In towns, our scraps can form 50% of it. They generally prefer scavenging to active hunting as it involves less effort. Their diet includes small rodents, birds, insects, worms, fruit and reptiles. Although they can live up to nine years, most only survive for three or four.
Town or Country?
Since the 1930s, foxes have been increasingly moving into our towns and cities. The rise of suburbia at this time enabled this move. Large gardens combined with low densities of housing provided a new and attractive habitat that was essentially an extension of the countryside but with easier access to food for rural animals. As territories filled, they then spread into even more urban areas. They are often one of the first animals we think of when we talk about urban wildlife. Researchers now believe more foxes live in urban settings than we thought, although the picture isn’t a completely straightforward one. It seems southern urban populations are stable while northern ones are growing. And the overall population, rural and urban combined, dropped by 43% between 1995 and 2015 in England.
An added complication to the picture is the fact that there is some overlap between town and country populations. Where we once thought rural and urban foxes stayed in their own orbit and never the twain did meet, more recent research shows this isn’t true. When there are more animals in towns than there are territories, the excess foxes move into the surrounding countryside. They will often still move in and out of the edge of urban areas at night to find food. Urban territories are certainly smaller than fully rural ones as food availability means more animals can survive in a smaller patch. But just because a fox spends most of its time in a town or city, it doesn’t mean its life is exclusively urban.
In Bristol, the population has remained stable for some time. The city has the UK’s third largest urban population, after Bournemouth and London. Interestingly, on a purely anecdotal level, the COVID-19 lockdowns seemed to affect their behaviour. As more people used their gardens rather than being able to go out, fox sightings went down, and they may have temporarily spent more time outside the city to avoid us. Now that we are able to leave home again, foxes seem to have returned to city gardens. Our garden trail camera certainly picks up activity most nights from a local family.
Threats and Ongoing Persecution
Scientists don’t fully understand the reasons for that big drop in fox numbers over recent decades, but our foxes certainly face a number of threats. Road fatalities are the biggest cause of death. Some show incredible resilience following injury or deformity, however, such as an amazing two-legged animal filmed in Derbyshire recently. Foxes are also vulnerable to sarcoptic mange, caused by a parasitic mite that also causes mange in dogs and scabies in humans. Foxes with mange lose large areas of fur and secondary infections can lead to death.
In addition, despite the fact the Hunting Act 2004 banned hunting with dogs, legal trail hunts still kill live foxes. Trail hunts are supposed to replicate real hunts but with an artificial scent trail for the dogs to follow. Hunt saboteurs have recorded footage of packs killing live foxes after picking up their trail, though. This may indeed sometimes be accidental, but organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports believe trail hunting is simply a cover to continue hunting for real. Many involved in hunting believe that the government should overturn the ban. Their justifications include that hunting is an ancient tradition that needs preserving, that townies don’t understand the countryside and its needs and that fox populations are too big so need controlling.
I would counter by saying that just because a tradition is old doesn’t make it right and accepted conventions can of course change over time. Research also gives the lie to the idea fox populations, especially rural ones, are too big. Even if you believe foxes need lethally controlling, hunting is by far the least economic, efficient and humane method of doing this. And, contrary to popular belief, foxes do not kill for fun. When they kill more than they can eat in one go, they intend to cache the excess for later. Accusations that they wipe out henhouses and leave the bodies without eating them usually signify an animal was disturbed before it could return to store them. Myths like this, though, mean many people see foxes as ‘vermin’ needing widespread control.
***STOP PRESS*** Happily, a day or two after I published this post, the Scottish Parliament banned trail hunting in Scotland, which is brilliant news. Hopefully other devolved parliaments will follow suit.
The Mythical Trickster
Myths surround the red fox in many cultures due to its extensive range across the Northern Hemisphere. Their resourcefulness and preference for scavenging means that in many of these tales the fox is a cunning and clever trickster. Sometimes this intelligence is a force for good. For example, some native American tribes, including the Apache and Blackfoot, include fox as one of the creator gods. He was responsible for giving fire to humans. Other tribes see him as a greedy, but mostly harmless, prankster. In Japan, kitsune are foxes that can shapeshift into human form and possess a variety of supernatural powers. Because foxes often seem to disappear like magic, it isn’t a huge stretch to understand where stories like this come from.
In Celtic mythology, foxes could also be shapeshifters. People respected their wisdom and adaptability. In Finland, the mythical firefox is responsible for creating the Northern Lights. A series of Medieval stories across northern Europe centred on a fox character called Reynard who continually outwitted or tricked other animals. Reynard is still a popular nickname for foxes today. And in more recent times, a similarly clever and resourceful fox succeeds in outwitting the farmers out to get him in Roald Dahl’s classic book, Fantastic Mr Fox.
Fantastic Mr Fox
Red foxes are fascinating animals, able to adapt quickly to changing environments. Despite centuries of persecution, they have found a way to exist alongside us, even if there are still some who wish they hadn’t. So, let’s celebrate this resourceful and clever companion and ensure they are able to keep living alongside us into the future.
In Foxes Unearthed Lucy Jones brilliantly captures our complicated relationship with foxes in the UK. Loved by some, hated by others, our attitudes to them have come to stand in for wider opinions about how we manage the countryside and farm the land. Jones travels the country to investigate why both sides feel the way they do and get to the truth about these divisive animals.
Adele Brand’s book is more of a straightforward ecological look at foxes, but no less interesting for that. Brand has studied foxes for years and shares her findings here, including chapters on behaviour, family life, feeding and their move into our towns and cities.
The 1970s and 80s was a golden age for adult novels set in the natural world. Think Watership Down, Duncton Wood and the like. Originally published in 1981, A Black Fox Running sits alongside these. It tells the story of Dartmoor fox Wulfgar’s battle to evade Scoble the trapper. Beautifully written, acclaimed writer Melissa Harrison introduces the new edition.