Some creatures still excite our imaginations and have the ability to amaze both young and old.
Ask people about foxes and you are regaled with stories around midnight encounters on the way back from the pub to raids on chicken coops. Despite becoming increasingly urbanised, foxes retain their bandit status, and from Hollywood to our back gardens we love hearing tales of outlaws.
Foxes are intelligent and adaptable creatures, and this has allowed them to move from hedgerows and fields to streets and houses. When I was growing up it was a rare experience to see a fox near houses. My neighbour, who was also a butcher, used to bring back bones, and he had managed to semi tame a fox who came to his backdoor each night to collect his dinner. The fox was never seen as a pet, and his kids could watch, but not touch. Dogs have generations of domesticity, and it’s important to remember that foxes are still a wild creature.
Lack of food may have been one of the reasons for foxes becoming our close neighbours. In the countryside, rabbits formed a big part of their diet, but when myxomatosis was introduced this food source was depleted. Also despite the risks from traffic, there are no hunters stalking the streets. Many people now feed foxes, and they also forage for any discarded food. They might also hunt rodents like rats and mice, and help to keep their population under control. Foxes are omnivores and eat carrion, fruit and any seasonal offerings. Research indicates that they live for 12-18 months in the urban areas and three years in the wild. They can eat up to one kilogram of food per day and have excellent eyesight and smell. This allows them to hunt small creatures even in thick grass.
Foxes will often bury some food for a rainy day and have good memories. During the hard winter of 2010, a fox with an injured leg came into my garden searching for food. She was so hungry that she started eating the bird seeds. The activities of the birds had created a local thaw underneath the feeder and she dug there looking for worms. We threw out some rashers, and the first bit was buried in the garden before devouring the rest.
A mature fox is around the same size as a medium dog and can reach 11kg. Their back is reddish and they are whitish underneath. Ears are russet coloured with black peaks. The long bushy tail, called a sweep, is half its body length, with a prominent white tip. They are very vocal, and over 28 different calls have been recorded that they use for communication.
Mating takes place between December and February, and the eerie call of the female (or vixen) echoes through the night. Four to six kits are born, and for the first two weeks the female stays in the den while the male hunts and brings home food. They are protective parents, and with a hungry brood to take care of, this normally wary species becomes bolder and easier to spot. Come autumn they disperse as this is a tough time of the year for them. They must put into practice all the survival skills they have learnt for their parents at one of the leanest times of the year, and most do not survive their first year.
In the countryside they excavate dens with several entrances in case they have to make a quick escape. These are dug in hedgerow banks and in quarries. The boundaries of territories are marked with a musky smell that is really a chemical message telling the sex, status and availability of the animal. Foxes are mainly crepuscular, meaning that they are out from dusk to dawn.
I think that after a night foraging most of the foxes return to the countryside. They will travel up to several miles during the night, and from the heart of the urban environment it’s only a ten minute walk to trees and hedgerows. Others may pass the day unnoticed under garden sheds or graveyards.