Is a new breed of fearless, dangerous fox stalking our city streets? Philip Bowern reports.
The country fox, (Vulpes vulpes) stands not much taller than a leggy terrier and weighs, on average, less than 7kg or 15lbs. In the countryside you will see him only rarely. If you do come across one, trotting along a quiet lane at dusk or skulking down the end of the cottage garden digging for worms at dawn, he will generally lift his head, cock his ears and be gone. Perhaps not that quickly and occasionally with a backward glance, but promptly enough for you to know he's not coming back; at least not until tomorrow. If he steals your chickens it will be in dead of night. Often all you will find next day is a few feathers and an empty coop.
But what about the town fox? He is of the same genus, not noticeably larger or heavier, and outwardly shows the same characteristics. Yet spot him (or her) pawing at the bins, delving through the Saturday night detritus of fast food wrappers and half-eaten takeaway meals, and chances are he'll stare right back at you and stand his ground. He's going nowhere.
It is now not unusual for city dwellers to have a better working knowledge of the habits of the fox than their country counterparts. This most adaptable of mammals has found our wasteful ways with food very much to his liking. Our cities, with their mix of overgrown gardens, leafy parks, myriad hiding places and food on tap, offers the easy life.
That all seemed fine, for a while. But like the rat, and the feral pigeon, the fox is now an urban pest. For many people the novelty of having a relatively large mammal with an undeniably beautiful coloured coat and a certain vulpine beauty, dodging between the cars and standing proud in the sodium glow of night-time, has lost its appeal. For an unlucky few, who have found the fox getting far too close for comfort and even, in isolated cases, attacking them, he has become public enemy number one.
The latest case of fox attack, in which a baby was mauled in his cot in Bromley, South East London, almost losing a finger to the fox's teeth, has horrified many people. And although sympathetic, some country folk have secretly sighed "at last"! Not because they wish the poor child any harm, but because the image some townies have of the fox – an anthropomorphised view that owes more to Disney than the Collins Guide to British Mammals – has been exploded for the cuddly myth that it always was.
And yet to those familiar with the country fox something feels not quite right about these attacks in our cities and towns. The foxes we know; the foxes that used to be pursued by hounds and huntsmen, that are still admired on the hill and in the woods and are still trapped or shot when they interfere with other aspects of country life, simply wouldn't behave like this.
Wildlife experts have even gone so far as to suggest urban fox attacks are little more than urban myths, denying point blank that the European red fox would ever attack a human being, unless cornered, threatened or defending its young.
Maybe, however, these experts are not familiar with the new breed of city fox. Witnesses not prone to exaggeration report foxes in suburban London that seem to be sizing up individuals who comes close; weighing up, however fanciful it may seem, whether or not they could "take them" almost in the way a lioness considers whether or not the antelope or wildebeest she is stalking is worth the chase, based on the likelihood of making a kill.
If that's the case, are urban foxes making a judgment and concluding, alarmingly, that while we might look too big to tangle with, our children represent potential prey? Surely not.
It may be the case however, that lured, first into our towns, then into our gardens and finally into our homes by the promise of easy pickings, they are, opportunistically, behaving as any top predator would and seeking out "prey" beyond the casually strewn rubbish. So what is to be done? Foxes are undeniably hard to shift. In the countryside many hundreds are shot every year by gamekeepers protecting pheasant poults, farmers looking after free range hens and others who want to keep fox numbers in check. Newcomers, however, generally come in to fill the gaps; in towns they can exist in quite large social groups; they will also travel relatively large distances.
A vixen will mate with a dog fox in January producing a litter of four or five cubs roughly 52 days later. Without the risk of being hunted or shot – not something that happens in towns and cities to any great extent – the urban fox population has dramatically grown. The country fox goes about his business as he has always done, wary of man with his dogs and his guns, keeping out of sight, going out at night and knowing his place. But the city fox… he seems to be a very different character altogether.