It’s a curious paradox that those of us living in urban and suburban parts of the UK often rub shoulders more closely with wildlife than country folk do. But how did these animals end up in such incongruous living conditions, how do they survive and do humans and wildlife always make good neighbours?
Driven out of their natural habitat due to urbanisation and intensive agriculture, several species have capitalised on the wide availability of food and shelter in Britain’s city parks and leafy suburbs. There is one creature, however, that stands out for its remarkable ability to adapt to a suburban lifestyle and that is the red fox (Vulpes Vulpes).
Red foxes are the most abundant and widespread carnivores in the world. They have successfully colonised almost every major city in the UK and every corner of the capital, where their numbers are believed to be as high as 10,000.
According to Ian Tokelove, Senior Communications and Campaigns Officer at the London Wildlife Trust (LWT), urban foxes have famously been sighted outside Number 10 Downing St and inside the choir stalls of St Paul’s Cathedral, but they tend to thrive in brownfield sites, nature reserves, railway sidings and, of course, suburban gardens.
‘They have come into London looking for new territory,’ he says. ‘Within cities more foxes can be supported per square mile than on agricultural land, especially if it is intensive arable farmland, and some studies show that urban foxes have smaller ranges than rural ones.’
Professor Ian Rotherham, an expert in urban wildlife based at Sheffield Hallam University, believes that our tree-lined roads, railways and waterways have also helped foxes and other mammals to migrate from country to town.
‘By upgrading our transport system and planting up the roadsides with trees, we have created arterial runways for wildlife with excellent cover at night,’ he explains. ‘We have wildlife habitats like ancient woods within cities and these have been linked up by green corridors.’
Foxes are expert scavengers and can find rich pickings in rubbish bins and discarded takeaway boxes, while they also dig up earthworms and hunt small mammals, helping to control urban mouse and rat populations—a fact that they are rarely given credit for. In addition, these cunning critters often dine out on deliberate handouts from their human neighbours.
With such a strong presence in many towns and cities, foxes naturally provoke mixed reactions from the public. Rotherham believes that most city dwellers are ‘blown away’ by the sight of wild animals on their doorstep, while Tokelove has never ceased to marvel at the fact that ‘in the city you can get within a few paces of a fox’ whereas, ‘in the countryside they are off as soon as they see you’.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of Fantastic Mr Fox. Professional pest controller Tom Keightley receives regular requests from suburbanites for him to control their ‘fox problem’. His clients’ objections include being kept awake by barking and screeching at night, the sight and smell of urine and faeces, and the damage done to prized gardens. But besides causing a nuisance, there are concerns that these predatory mammals may pose a safety risk to children and pets.
‘Some of my clients have witnessed foxes actually taking their cat in broad daylight, but the biggest concern is the possibility of attacks on children,’ says Keightley. ‘Foxes are drawn to the smell of nappies and abundant food and over time they venture inside. Attacks are on the increase and I believe that it is only a matter time before a fatality occurs.’
While Tokelove acknowledges that there have been fox attacks on children, he suspects that these occurrences are rare, and that in some cases, a family dog may have been the real culprit. In addition, although there is anecdotal evidence of foxes killing elderly cats, there are also many reports of cats and foxes relaxing together on garden lawns and shed roofs.
Rotherham agrees that foxes should not pose a safety risk as long as people respect their wildness and do not allow them to enter their homes, where they may react if they feel cornered. ‘Problems arise when people forget that they are wild animals and not pets,’ he stresses.
Despite the noise and mess they make, foxes are not classified as pests or vermin and local councils are not obligated to take action against them. So, if people really object to sharing their gardens with these ginger beasts they have to take matters into their own hands.
There are several non-lethal methods of fox control, including building high fences, blocking up holes with concrete or even urinating in the garden, but none of these are considered particularly effective or practical. Foxes are extremely agile and are unlikely to be deterred by tall fencing, while blocking up holes will have a negative impact on other wildlife such as hedgehogs and frogs. What’s more, urban foxes are so used to mankind that it is doubtful that they would regard the smell of human urine as a threat.
That leaves removal by trap and release or culling. While the former may seem kinder, according to Keightley it can lead to welfare issues. Trapping, he argues, causes distress, while releasing foxes into unfamiliar territory can jeopardise their chances of survival.
Instead, Keightley’s preferred method of fox control is culling with a rifle. He holds a firearms licence, as well as certifications from various organisations, including The Humane Slaughter Association, and acts within the law as foxes are not protected species. He shoots on average six foxes per household, using a method that he says is ‘the most humane available’ and which kills them ‘instantly with no suffering’.
Nevertheless, Keightley’s views jar with those of the LWT which does not advocate culling or removing foxes so long as they are not having a negative impact on local wildlife populations or causing an overriding public health risk.
Tokelove insists that culling foxes is fruitless because ‘if you shoot one fox all you do is create a space for another to move in,’ while Rotherham maintains that ‘foxes are highly territorial so the population won’t go beyond a certain limit’. Moreover, around 60 per cent of London’s fox population are killed in traffic accidents each year, while others succumb to diseases such as sarcoptic mange.
A far better approach, says Tokelove, and the one that is practised by most Londoners, is to live and let live: ‘It is give and take; in London there is a whole mix of people and cultures, rubbing along together and generally the wildlife fits in just fine’.
‘Wildlife provides us with huge benefits, making us healthier, happier and fitter,’ adds Rotherham. And while not everyone is keen on the sound of vixens’ piercing screams during the mating season, he believes that this is a small price to pay for the ‘wonderful sight of fox cubs frolicking on your garden lawn in spring’.