THE RED FOX
Red foxes live around the world in many diverse habitats including forests, grasslands, mountains, and deserts. They also adapt well to human environments such as farms, suburban areas, and even large communities. The red fox's resourcefulness has earned it a legendary reputation for intelligence and cunning.
Red foxes are solitary hunters who feed on rodents, rabbits, birds, and other small game-but their diet can be as flexible as their home habitat. Foxes will eat fruit and vegetables, fish, frogs, and even worms. If living among humans, foxes will opportunistically dine on garbage and pet food.
Like a cat's, the fox's thick tail aids its balance, but it has other uses as well. A fox uses its tail (or "brush") as a warm cover in cold weather and as a signal flag to communicate with other foxes. Foxes also signal each other by making scent posts - urinating on trees or rocks to announce their presence.
In winter, foxes meet to mate. The vixen (female) typically gives birth to a litter of 2 to 12 pups. At birth, red foxes are actually brown or grey. A new red coat usually grows by the end of the first month, but some red foxes are golden, reddish-brown, silver, or even black. Both parents care for their young through the summer before they are able to strike out on their own in the fall. Red foxes are hunted for sport, and are sometimes killed as destructive pests or carriers of rabies.
Culling urban foxes just doesnt work
Rare cases of foxes biting children cause uproar, but culling won't cut numbers it is our behaviour that needs addressing, says an ecologist
By Stephen Harris
Our overfamiliarity with them is part of the problem
In the UK, whenever wildlife is seen to be posing a problem, it goes without saying that the culprits are branded as overabundant be they badgers, grey squirrels or foxes. I cannot remember how often I have been told that foxes need to be culled because they have no natural predators.
So it was almost inevitable that when a baby in Bromley in the suburbs of south-east London was bitten by a fox last week, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, demanded that the citys many borough councils tackle the growing problem of urban foxes, which he called a pest and a menace.
Fortunately, cases of foxes biting children are very rare, but whenever they happen the media is whipped into a frenzy and such language dominates the coverage. Feeding this frenzy may be good for Johnsons image, but it sidesteps the facts.
Firstly, there is a vastly greater risk that your child will be attacked by a pet cat or dog, especially your own. Nearly a third of UK dog owners have been bitten or attacked by a dog, sometimes with horrendous consequences. There are thousands of hospital admissions for dog bites each year, many resulting in injury to the face requiring plastic surgery, and with children worst affected. On average, dog attacks result in roughly one child and one adult being killed each year in the UK.
Tried and failed
People who call for a fox cull also forget or ignore the fact that it has been tried before, and failed. Foxes started to colonise our cities in the 1930s, when a house-building boom and suburban expansion created an ideal habitat for both people and foxes lower-density housing with bigger gardens. From the late 1940s, the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries started trapping and shooting foxes in south-east London to try to curb the growing red menace. Yet fox numbers continued to increase and they spread into the inner suburbs.
In 1970 the responsibility for fox control passed to the London boroughs, and many in south and west London started trapping and shooting foxes, and gassing their dens with cyanide.
Bromley once had a full-time fox control officer who killed over 300 foxes a year, mostly by shooting them in peoples gardens with a 12-bore shotgun. For two days a week he was assisted by another council employee. However, their combined efforts had no discernible impact on fox numbers and Bromley, along with the other London boroughs, ceased its fox control measures in the 1980s.
We could not even stop the early spread of foxes into London, let alone reduce numbers, an all-too-familiar story with foxes generally.
The lack of success was hardly surprising. In the city of Bristol in western England, when foxes are removed from a territory, others take their place in around four days. Studies in Scotland and Wales both suggest that killing foxes leads to a slightly higher breeding population the next year, probably because more foxes move in to contest the vacant area than were there in the first place.
Hype over science
Culling foxes now is likely to be both expensive and counterproductive. And it will not target the problem: the individual foxes that actually pose a risk to people. But the British press feeds on hype, not science.
Equally frustrating, whenever fox bites sporadically hit the headlines, is the number of experts that suddenly appear claiming that urban fox numbers are increasing, as are attacks on children. I have never heard of many of these experts and see remarkably little evidence to support their assertions.
Bristol is the only city in the UK where the fox population has been monitored long-term: here fox numbers slowly fluctuate, with occasional dramatic changes, such as when the skin disease sarcoptic mange arrived in spring 1994. This hit Bristols foxes hard. By spring 1996 over 95 per cent had died, and the city had become a vulpine ghost town. I never heard a single person celebrating their disappearance, only mourning their loss.
Since then fox numbers have slowly recovered: we predicted this would take 15 to 20 years, as proved to be the case. Foxes are only just returning to their earlier densities. Much the same appears to have happened in other cities across the UK following the northward and westward spread of sarcoptic mange. Many urban areas still have fewer foxes than they did before the disease broke out.
No bigger or bolder
Interestingly, before mange, foxes that could be described as bold or friendly were relatively common in Bristol. My impression is that we now have fewer bold foxes. We are still trying to work out why this may have happened. But there is no evidence that urban foxes generally are getting bigger or bolder, or pose more of a risk to people.
With all this misinformation, it may seem surprising to hear that we actually know more about urban foxes in the UK than rural foxes. Far more. In fact, there is far more published data on urban foxes in the UK than on foxes anywhere else in the world. This makes the misleading media coverage even more puzzling and worrying.
That is not to say there is not a growing problem: there is. But it is human rather than fox behaviour that is the issue. More and more television programmes show people handling wildlife; macho presenters have to touch, catch or wrestle wild animals. When people follow their example, such as by encouraging foxes to take food from their hands or come into their kitchen to be fed, problems are inevitable.
And thats the irony; first the media publicises people showing off their tame foxes, be it feeding them by hand on wildlife shows or in their homes or keeping them as pets, then goes into a misinformed frenzy over the problems that invariably follow.
Stephen Harris is professor of environmental sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, and founded its Mammal Research Unit. He spent six years studying foxes in London and launched his long-term study of Bristols foxes in 1977. It has been running ever since.