When Fairport Convention updated the traditional folk song Reynardine for inclusion on their iconic, late sixties album Liege & Lief, they, perhaps unwittingly, promoted the much held view that foxes (renard being the French for fox) were sly, cunning, evil and deceitful. Reynardine was a human who took the form of a fox to lure unsuspecting women to his den.
Yet, in literature and films, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is often regarded as one of the good guys; Disney's Robin Hood and Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox for example. But even dear old Walt couldn't quite decide as he created and cast the Fox Brothers as the bad guys in his animated film Pinocchio from 1940 - yes, it really is that old! More recently, The Gruffalo has portrayed the fox as not being of sound character.
And it is this indecision about their character that splits opinion, but not, as some might think, right down the middle. In a recent survey on urban foxes, close to 66% said they were more than happy to have them in their area; 25% had no strong opinion, whilst the remainder would prefer to see them culled, or at least controlled.
In rural areas, especially amongst the farming community and landowners, the split is more equal. It was only in 2005 (2002 in Scotland) that fox hunting was banned and, ever since then, there have been calls from some quarters for it to be reinstated on the grounds of the animal's verminous nature. But can the fox really be classed as vermin, or is it simply a victim of propaganda?
The fox is an opportunist; more than capable of catching its own dinner, but equally happy to decimate the contents of a chicken shed; and it is this latter behaviour that rankles. In truth, the fox is not killing indiscriminately, but rather for its store or larder. Given the opportunity - which it rarely gets - it will return to take away all its prey to store for consumption at a later date. A bit like a shopping trip to Tesco, if you will.
To fully appreciate the fox, one needs to understand its lifestyle. Foxes are canines, closely related to domestic dogs. They are generally nocturnal but, if left undisturbed, will happily forage for food during the day.
Their diet is diverse and includes small mammals, birds and their eggs, fruit and insects. They will also take carrion, so can be regarded as cleaning up the countryside. In urban areas they will scavenge from dustbins, bird tables and compost heaps. This is regarded as verminous behaviour but, in truth, it is we humans who are providing the opportunity and the fox is not to blame.
Equally, they will take cats, guinea pigs, rabbits etc. but, again, we are asking them to make the distinction between domestic and wild on a human level!
One study of a fox's stomach recorded thirty-four different mammal species, fourteen species of bird, fifteen insects and twenty-one species of plants.
Worldwide, there are twelve true species of fox, with the Red Fox being the most common. The males are known as reynards (that word again) or dogs, whilst the females are called vixens; a term often used, along with foxy, in reference to a sexy woman!
The average litter size is around four to six and the success rate to adulthood will be dependent on the available food source. The vixen generally rears the cubs on her own although, in some cases, the dog fox will stay close to the den to help out.
The breeding season in the UK is December through to the end of February. The vixen will take up occupancy of a breeding earth in February, staying there until mid June, when the cubs will appear above ground after being weaned.
During the mating season, dog foxes will travel great distances to finds a receptive vixen, stopping during his travels to make his unmistakable high pitched bark, then waiting to hear the banshee like three screams made by a vixen - both calls can be blood curdling if you are of a nervous disposition!
Rural foxes can have territories ranging between 200-500 hectares, whilst urban foxes will stay closer to home near their food source. There will be at least two earths on a territory, one for rearing the cubs and the other for general daytime resting. In urban areas, foxes will happily use a dry drain, ditch or similar to wile away the day.
The lifespan of a fox is between two to six years in the wild, but they may live longer when food is readily available. A ten year old fox is rare and, by then, they will usually be arthritic and have lost most of their teeth. However, in captivity, foxes may live to fourteen.
It is estimated that around 100,000 foxes are killed each year on our roads. Coupled with their relatively short lifespan (averaging three years) and the 50% mortality rate amongst cubs, numbers remain self regulated at a quarter of a million adults.
From those statistics, it is clear that the fox hunting fraternity's claims that their 'sport' helps to control numbers is unlikely.
The Hunting Act makes hunting with dogs illegal. Whilst public support for the prohibition of hunting has always been high, it has increased substantially in the past ten years. The latest poll from Ipsos MORI, conducted in 2014, showed that 80% of people thought fox hunting should remain illegal. Additionally, 86% thought stag hunting should also remain illegal and 88% that hare hunting and coursing should remain illegal.
Whilst I have some sympathy for the passing of a traditional and ancient pastime, we are not talking clog dancing or village cricket here.
Even given their capacity to self regulate their numbers, some folk see the need to control the population further. This may be understandable to an extent in urban situations because of their nuisance value, but it should be remembered that it is usually the tardiness of humans that has attracted them in the first place.
Additionally, there are concerns surrounding disease, attacks on children and even the possibility that domestic dogs and foxes will mate with each other. So let's look at these in order.
Disease: There is no known case of humans catching diseases from foxes or their droppings in Britain; you are vastly more likely to catch an infection from your pet cat or dog.
Children: Occasionally, the press reports attacks on children that are said to be by foxes but, when investigated further, the bite wounds do not appear to be typical fox bites. It is not impossible that a child could be bitten by a fox but, if it occurs, it is extremely rare. In comparison, the risk of injury from domestic dogs and cats is very much higher.
Mating with domestic dogs: Foxes and dogs are different species and cannot hybridise. Even if a dog and fox were to mate, there could be no offspring as their chromosome numbers are different. So there is no chance of a litter of bushy tailed reynardoodles or foxatians!
Moreover, the breeding season of the fox is very short - a few weeks in winter - and, outside this short period, female foxes are not fertile.
If you believe that control is the way forward, then cage trapping of urban foxes can be very easy. Baiting a trap with a cooked chicken, pork pie, dead rabbit, or almost anything else that is meat based, will attract a foraging urban fox.
Rural foxes are a different story. These animals have usually survived on their wits, finding food when, and wherever, they can. They certainly cannot rely on human handouts or wheelie bins for dinner!
In the countryside, snares or shooting at night with a rifle and a high powered light (lamping) is the most productive methods. Both methods need to be undertaken by someone with experience that has been suitably trained.
Foxes can easily be called into range of a rifle or shotgun if they have not been 'lamped' before, but you get just one chance at culling the targeted animal - they won't fall for it twice!
Snaring is an art that takes a good while to master. Be aware that you will need to have in place a method to humanely kill a fox should one be trapped. Remember that non-target species, by law, have to be released unharmed; and removing a very angry badger from a snare is not for the faint-hearted!
Any traps set for foxes must be checked regularly - once a day is barely enough, even if it is first thing in the morning. They must also be securely anchored.
By law, any snare set for a fox has to be free running under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Section 11. Any animal trapped must be alive when you check snares.
Do not be tempted to try to poison foxes as this can put other animals (pets, wild birds etc.) and humans at risk. People who do use poisons illegally can face substantial fines and/or a prison sentence. If you need practical help with foxes, you should contact a pest control professional for advice. The British Pest Control Association website (www.bpca.org.uk) is useful for finding a suitable pest control professional. Only trained pest control professionals can kill or trap foxes.
If you are concerned about foxes, follow these guidelines:
- do not leave French windows or external ground-floor doors and windows, or those immediately above a flat roof, wide open, especially after dark
- store all your refuse in metal bins with secure tops
- do not leave pet-food or the remnants of a barbecue out in the garden, on a balcony or terrace
- only put refuse out on the right collection day
- don't use fertilisers containing blood, fish and bone meal as they will attract foxes
Frequently asked questions
How many foxes are there in Britain?
At the end of winter, when numbers are lowest, there are 258,000 adult foxes in Britain, of which 225,000 live in rural areas and 33,000 in urban areas. Around 425,000 cubs are born each spring. Their relatively short lifespan self regulates the population nationally.
How big are foxes?
Surprisingly small; the average weight of a dog fox is 6.8kg (15lbs), for a vixen 5.7kg (12.5lbs). Whilst heavier foxes (up to 10kg or 22lbs) occur occasionally, they are not much taller or longer than average, and the extra weight is largely due to accumulated fat. To put this into perspective, foxes are a little heavier than the average pet cat, but less than half the weight, and about three-quarters the height of a whippet.
So foxes are small animals, although their long fur coat makes them look bigger than they really are. A common statement is that "I have just seen a fox as big as an Alsatian". German shepherds (Alsatians) are twice as tall as a fox and weigh roughly six times as much. No one has ever seen a fox anywhere near the size of an Alsatian.
Do foxes hunt in packs?
No: this is a myth. Foxes hunt alone, and it is uncommon to see two or more adult foxes together away from their earth (den). They occasionally meet other members of the social group during the night, but these social contacts generally last no more than a minute or two.
During the summer, larger cubs may follow the vixen when she is out hunting, but normally she catches the prey and then passes it to the cubs, who appear to learn by watching the vixen rather than by participating in the hunt.
Do foxes kill and eat their young?
It is not that common, but it does happen. If more than one vixen in a group breeds, the litter of the subordinate vixen is sometimes (but not invariably) killed, either by her or the dominant vixen. The cubs are then often eaten. Very rarely, a vixen may kill the cubs of a vixen living on an adjacent territory and bring them back for her own cubs to eat.
Do cubs kill and eat each other?
For the first few weeks of life, cubs fight to establish dominance and the weaker cubs may be killed: around 20% of cubs die in the first four weeks of life, probably as a result of these fights. Older cubs are sometimes also killed. Any dead cub, however it dies, is likely to be eaten by its littermates; there is no point in wasting a valuable source of food!
Do foxes have any natural predators?
Yes. Cubs are killed by golden eagles and badgers. However, the numbers killed are generally low and do not have an impact on numbers.
Foxes and the law
Any foxes that you catch are protected under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. You can be jailed and fined up to £20,000 for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.
Illegal control methods
You must only use control methods set out by Natural England. Failure to do so could mean you face a jail sentence of up to 6 months and a fine of up to £5,000.
You cannot use the following:
- self-locking snares
- bows and crossbows
- explosives, other than legal ammunition for a licensed firearm
- live birds or animals, as bait or live decoys
To discourage foxes from coming to your property you should:
- secure food waste in bins
- use fencing to protect pets and livestock
If the problem persists, you can use the control methods set out in the Natural England guide, but you mustn't:
- use gassing or poisoning
- block or destroy earths if they are occupied
You can use cage traps and snares to catch foxes.
To stop a captured fox suffering, you should check cage traps at least once a day.
- only use free-running snares, which relax when the animal is captured
- check snares at least once a day
- humanely kill any fox you catch whilst it is still in the trap or snare
- release all other animals unharmed - except grey squirrels and mink, which you must humanely kill
- relocate or release captured foxes
- place traps or snares near a badger sett or where badgers are present
- place snares in urban areas or public spaces
- use spring traps
You can shoot free foxes using a suitable firearm and ammunition.
You shouldn't use firearms in urban areas for reasons of public safety.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has a code of practice on shooting foxes at night (lamping).
The use of dogs
You cannot use dogs to hunt.
You can use dogs to stalk or flush out foxes above ground, but only to stop serious damage to your property. You must:
- use no more than two dogs
- shoot the foxes as soon as they break cover
- carry proof that you own the land or have written permission from the landowner
Using repellents or deterrents
You should only use repellents and deterrents approved for use against foxes.
Contact Natural England for advice on dealing with wildlife management.
Temple Quay House
2 The Square
T: 0208 026 1089
Visit www.gov.uk for further information