The much maligned animal seems to be increasingly in the headlines, but why? and who’s to blame for the friction between us and our wild neighbours? Neil Hudson reports.
IT’s said you are, on average, never no more than six feet away from a rat. While your average fox tends to keep a little more distance, they have recently been seen as worryingly ubiquitous and, potentially, just as dangerous.
If you listen to popular myth, the urban fox population has never been higher and our bushy-tailed cohabitants are becoming increasingly brave, to the point they will even enter our houses and, in some recent high profile cases, attack humans.
Experts are quick to point out such incidents are extremely rare while others remain altogether unconvinced by the claims.
Still, the fate of the urban fox has never been at such a crossroads.
Two weeks ago, there were fresh calls for a nationwide cull of our new neighbours following an alleged fox attack on a four-week-old baby in Lewisham, London.
During the attack, the baby lost a finger, which surgeons have since been able to reattach.
While living next door to one of Britain’s most successful wild animals has its inevitable dangers, there’s a growing demand for education on what attracts these animals in the first place.
They claim modern ‘throw-away’ lifestyles and a lack of care over how we dispose of litter have only served to create an omnipresent ‘food bank’ for foxes, who are only too happy to take advantage of an easy meal.
John Bryant is an urban wildlife expert who specialises in humane deterrents, including those designed for foxes.
He said: “The short answer is that these animals aren’t the problem, people are. One of the biggest issues is people feeding foxes on a regular basis and I have seen this myself. Often, the people who do that are elderly or living alone and they will start by giving it a few titbits but this can sometimes develop into going down the supermarket to buy a whole chicken every day.
“The fox is a wild animal, but how is it to know which houses it shouldn’t go in? At the end of the day, it’s not the people who are feeding the fox I feel sorry for, it’s the fox, because in the end it’s the fox which suffers because eventually a neighbour will get fed up and call in a pest control firm to shoot and kill it.
“What we have to do is to stop feeding foxes like this and it can be done with bylaws, as it has been done in some places with bans on feeding pigeons.
“I can tell you now: a cull would not work. Research has shown that once one fox has been removed, it is quickly replaced by another.”
“Urban foxes have adapted to become used to us. When they first come out of their dens, we are one of the first animals they see. We’re also one of the scruffiest. People might feed them but they get all they need from our waste.”
Farmers Philip and Judith Gaunt, of Beulah Farm in Farnley, Leeds, have direct experience of urban foxes. They had to abandon keeping chickens several years ago because of repeated fox attacks.
“If they get in they rip the heads off all your chickens. There are far too many of them in the towns and cities.
“The other thing to note is that a lot of the ones I see are not in very good condition. A lot of them have mange, which they can easily pass on to domestic dogs and cats.
“The urban fox problem is a completely separate issue to the debate about fox hunting and re-introducing hunting would not solve the urban problem.”
Judith said: “The urban landscape is perfect for foxes, because they have everything they want in terms of shelter and easy access to food.
“In a way, people are to blame for the dramatic rise in the fox population because of all the food litter which is just left lying around or uncovered. It’s a symptom of modern living but it’s a factor in causing the rise of the urban fox.
“It’s not uncommon for us to se them during the day now, they are very bold and not really bothered about humans.”
Leanne Plumtree from the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) says that there are quite a few misconceptions around the subject of urban foxes.
“It is a common myth, for example, that the RSPCA releases foxes which are brought into its care into urban areas.” she says
“If we are given care of a fox because it is ill or injured, it is firstly assessed and if it’s deemed that we can rehabilitate an animal, then time and money is spent doing that.
“When it comes to the time to release the animal, we have a database of areas around the UK of people who are happy to have such animals released onto their land. These could be farmers or other land owners.
“Foxes in general tend to avoid contact with humans but like any animal, they can become more familiar, especially if they learn there is a regular food source.
“People leaving rubbish about only encourages them to scavenge. A lot of people are happy to see foxes and find them fascinating. They are part of British wildlife and, after all, we don’t get to see much of that nowadays.”