Words and images by Peter Hanscomb
The Red Fox , Britains only remaining wild canine . Probably no other wild animal devides public opinion in the U.K. quite like the fox. For some the fox represents a danger , particularly to live stock farmers and game estates and for others the fox is a much welcomed inquisitive friend . This night time hunter and scavenger is shy and naturally weary of humans and for good reason , humans in the U.K. are the foxes only predator. Personally I find the fox a fascinating animal to observe, photograph and interact with. When I say interact I don’t mean touch or pet but more observe their behaviour and how they react to my presence and that of other people both in the wild and urban environments.
The red fox , Vulpes vulpes is the largest member of the twenty-one fox species found around the world. . Highly adaptable the fox can be found in almost every habitat throughout the British Isles from the mountain ranges of Scotland , in our forests and fields , and even in our towns , cities and villages. The Urban Fox now accounts for over twenty percent of the total population and has been a common sight in most urban areas since it started to move into suburbia in the 1940’s. In total it’s estimated that there are 260,000 foxes in total in th UK with 50,000 foxes making their homes in our urban areas.
The fox is easy to recognise , with its reddish orange coat and thick busy tale during winter , off white breast and dark almost black fur on the lower part of the legs . It’s size is similar to a small dog , with the male or dog weighing in at around 7-10 Kg and the female or vixen slightly smaller ( normally at least one kilo lighter ) . Surprisingly the average life expectancy is only 2-3 years , with the main cause of death being disease, road kill and the intervention of man. Sadly many foxes will not reach their first birthday , however individuals have been recorded living past 9 years in the wild and up to 14 years in captivity, much the same as their domestic cousins.
In the wild the fox is a lone hunter and traveller, but the fox isn’t a solitary animal and will normally mate for life . They can be observed in small family groups such as a mating pair , and mother and her young . In urban areas it’s not uncommon to view young siblings still scavenging together. The individual territory of a fox can range from as little as a single square kilometre in inner city environments and up to 40 square kilometres in open country side. Each territory regardless of size will only normally contain one adult fox , which will sent mark it’s domain and defend its territory from other foxes. Confrontations are however rare as most foxes will try and avoid conflict is possible. The subordinate fox will either fun away from the confrontation or adopt a submissive posture. Foxes scent mark their territory much like domestic dogs to warn other foxes the areas occupied and would be defended if necessary.
The mating season is from December to February, however the vixen is only receptive for a very short time of around three to four days. During this time the fox will throw caution to the wind with only one thing on their minds , reproduction. Its normally only one vixen in the group who then producing 4 – 5 cubs born in the spring . The litters are born blind and deaf and weighs around 100g in a den ( called and earth ). The foxes earths may have been dug by the Fox family but it’s not unusual for foxes to use rabbit burrows or even a disused Badger sett. In urban areas it’s common to find the earth under sheds or decking. The vixen and cubs stay in the earth for the first three to four weeks before emerging into the open in late April or early May. During this time the male fox will provide food for the vixen and cubs. From the age of six weeks the vixen will start to leave the den and cubs to hunt and scavenge for food , joining the male fox in providing food for the growing cubs. The cubs take on the appearance of adults after about eight weeks, the same time as they are weaned. Cubs start to become self sufficient around three to four months after birth , travelling further from the den either with one of the adults or another sibling. By September they have started to leave the den , finding their own territory. Fox families have a system of hierarchy , who gets to mate , eat first and so on. The exception to this are the fox cubs , adults never shown any form of aggression towards their young.
Foxes have a wide and varied diet. In costal areas as salt marshes they will often catch crabs and scavenge dead seabirds, whilst in upland areas carrion forms an important part of their diet. In low land rural areas foxes feed on small mammals such as field voles, mice , rats and rabbits as well as earthworms and insects , fruit and small birds. Livestock on farms , particularly young animals and birds present the fox with easy pickings , bring them into conflict with the farmers and land owners. In urban areas the Fox will scavenge from discarded food , road kill and bird feeders . It’s estimated that up to 60 % of an urban foxes diet is food deliberately left by sympathetic households for the foxes benefit. One of the myths surrounding foxes is that they scavenge from rubbish bins , but all the studies carried out dismiss this idea. The fox will very often cashe food when supply is plentiful. This envolves taking as much of the available food and then hiding the food under bushes or cover or bury the food for later. The fox doesn’t seem to be storing food for leaner times but more removing food from the attention of other foxes and scavengers. If you have foxes visiting your garden try leaving out a couple of raw eggs, I have witnessed the same fox remove several eggs in a few minutes, classic caching behaviour.
Foxes are by nature not aggressive animals and will normally try to avoid contact with humans. My own experience watching foxes at close quarters certainly confirms this. Very often the fox will run away as soon as he hears me open the door. If they stay around me it’s normally from a safe distance of around 3 metres , only returning to the garden after I have left . More often that not the fox will adopt a passive posture, either sitting like a domestic dog would or lying down with it’s head on the floor , between it’s front legs. Very occasionally the fox will slowly approach , but it will still maintain a distance and able to retreat . Foxes don’t make good pets , there remains a distinct wild nature even with hand reared cubs. Unless you work with wild foxes in an animal welfare role or work for a wildlife rescue centre your unlikely to come into conflict with a fox or be bitten. A fox bite is painful but there’s less likelihood of infection compared to a domestic cat bite. Normal precautions of a vaccination to cover antibiotics and tetanus still however apply.
The fox has a long history of association with humans, having been extensively persecuted and hunted as a pest and furbearer for many centuries. Foxes were referred to as beasts of the chase in medieval times. The earliest known attemp to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, England in 1534 where farmers began chasing foxes down with their dogs as a form of pest control.
The fox has long been part of British folklore, and traditions. Fox hunting was a part of country life for many centuries with elaborate ritual and colourful dress code until the practice was banned in 2004. The fox has appearing in literature often playing a sly and cunning villain in children’s stories. Think of a traditional British pub and you’ll probably not be too far from a Fox and Hounds , particularly as the fox lends it’s name to more than 500 public houses with this name in the UK. Those of a certain age will also remember with fondness, memories from childhood with the likes of Basil Brush, a fox puppet who first appeared on British TVs in 1963. Little foxes seems to be a popular name for children’s nursery school and the fox even pops up in the sporting environment., with teams adopting the fox name such as Leicester City , the Foxes. Our relationship with this wild canine really does run deep.
In the UK , in normal every day life there is very little to fear and virtually no danger of contracting any disease from either a wild or urban British fox. Rabies in a neurotropic nerve disease spread to humans via bites from infected animals. Still a major cause of death in the developing world rabies has historically been linked to the wild fox population . Rabies is still a sporadic problem in the fox community across the European mainland however the British Isles and the British fox population has been rabies free for a long time with the last recorded case of infection in 1902.
Sarcoptic mange , sarcoptes scabeii also called fox mange is the single most common infection in British foxes. The mange is caused by a parasitic mite with various sub species that infect different animals. Fox mange is a misleading term as the mite is in fact the same sub species that effects domestic dogs causing canine mange. The mite can survive for long periods of time in the environment without a host animal ,and being microscopic the source of a particular outbreak can often prove impossible to locate. However the mite needs a host to feed and breed.
Mange will often start in one area of the body , more commonly the foxes tail. The mite burrows into the foxes skin and then breeds and lays eggs. This process is repeated every twenty days. The fox will try to scratch and bite the effected areas , helping the mite to spread throughout the foxes body and as the mites spreads the itching becomes worse. Open wounds from the constant scratching will become infected and the foxes immune system will start to fail. Most untreated foxes will suffer an extremely painful and slow death as a direct result of mange infection within three months.
As with domestic dogs , mange treatment given to captive or rescued foxes is usually successful with most animals making a full recovery. The treatment involves antibiotics to help fight the infections caused and chemical products similar to that used to treat fleas to kill and remove the mite. For the wild fox , mange is harder to treat. If you see a wild fox suffering from mange it’s best to seek help and guidance from one of the fox charities listed below. The mange mite produces a mild allergic reaction in humans similar to nettle rash but as few people have direct contact with wild infected foxes the infection is more likely to have happened because of contact with an infected domestic dog rather than a fox.
Toxocara or roundworm can be carried by foxes. It’s the same roundworm most dogs are regularly treated for . Disposal of fox faeces should remove the potential for transmission to domestic animals as the eggs are not harmful until exposed to the air for 10 days. Both pet dogs and cats can host Toxocara , so once again the fox carries little threat to humans ( the last significant infect happened in the late 1980’s )
All wild animals have the potential to carry fleas and this including the fox. The most common flea on a fox is the same as a domestic cat , but if you encounter a healthy fox they will seldom have a significant flea problem.
Despite recent legislation, in particular the hunting act of 2004 , the fox has very little real protection in law. The 2004 act made hunting mammals with dogs illegal and also banned self locking traps and gin traps which were once used to catch foxes. Hunting with dogs still happens today , and with an active anti hunt campaign and the hunt sabotage groups it’s fair to say emotions are high on both sides. Free running snares are still legal, but they must be checked every day. In some areas foxes are still subject to shooting, being snared and dug out with dogs.
Despite the continued persecution and lack of protection foxes are still widespread and their numbers have been stable for many years. This success is in part due to the foxes ability to adapt to our changing world, populate our expanding urban landscape and live more closely within our communities. As such at the moment it doesn’t need any active conservation measures , just perhaps a little better understanding and acceptance from us its human neighbor. It’s estimated that road kill accounts for probably 50% of all Fox mortality.
Fox Facts and Figures
Size: Body length 62-72cm plus tail, weight 5-7 kg
Description: Reddish brown coat, lighter under parts with black markings
white tipped bushy tail
Habitat: Almost every habitat , 16% in urban areas.
Young: 1 litter born in March / April up to 5 cubs
Nest: Underground den or earth
Diet: Small mammals, birds, insects and fruit.
Lifespan : 12-18 months in urban areas
up to 3 years in rural areas.
Population: Estimated 260,000