FOXES - AN UNEASY ALLIANCE
Richard OGrady, Director of Glasgow Zoopark.
this time of year - July - we receive numerous telephone requests
for information from householders wondering what to do about the
foxes they find are sharing their gardens. Probably the foxes
have been there all along; its just that with the light
evenings, the holidays, and numerous young cubs running around,
they become very evident.
Foxes can be encountered virtually everywhere these days. I saw
a dead one - killed by a car - at Charing Cross a few days ago,
virtually in the heart of Glasgow. Until the invention of the
wheely-bin, food - in the form of human refuse - was plentiful.
It still is, of course; its just that so far foxes havent
been able to figure out how to open the lid of a wheely-bin! Grey
squirrels cant either, but they just gnaw their way straight
through the top, as I have seen several times.
A gamekeeper in Ayrshire once told me proudly that he shot or
snared every fox that entered his land. So far that
year he had killed over two hundred. Nature abhors a vacuum
is a truism, nowhere more so than when applied to an animals
territory. If you eliminate the territory holder, then one of
the army of non-territory-holding, wandering animals
- in this case foxes - will quickly move in to stake a claim.
That is why the gamekeeper was killing so many, which he interpreted
as evidence of how well he was doing his job.
Modern thinking - certainly in urban areas - is that you leave
the resident pair alone, just making sure that small domestic
pets, such as rabbits and guinea-pigs, are securely shut in at
night. Foxes do not bother cats at all and, in country areas,
have even been found sharing the same underground dens in hard
The resident pair will soon discover all that there is to know
about their area and, especially, who can be relied upon for food.
If you decide to feed them try to devise a method of calling to
them which does not attract the attention of your neighbours,
as that is just inviting trouble. Within a very short time foxes
will start turning up soon after you have put out food, and quickly
become quite - sometimes extremely - tame.
The food usually disappears rapidly, far faster than it seems
possible to eat it. Most foxes - particularly vixens - gulp it
down, or carry it in their mouths as they hurry off to a secure
spot nearby to cache it. This may be at the bottom of your garden
or in a neighbours garden. The food is hastily buried, so
the soil needs to be soft and friable (pot plant containers are
quite good!) so it will take a hole which can then be covered
over again quickly. Not surprisingly, the neighbours become mystified
if, when tending their plants, they find buried hard-boiled eggs,
or sausages, and they phone us asking for a possible explanation!
When the cubs are around - like now - householders sometimes worry
about the sheer numbers there appear to be. They shouldnt
bother as road traffic kills will eliminate the majority of them
within a few weeks or months. Foxes are very prolific, with litters
of up to eight quite normal. The late David Stephen of Cumbernauld,
author of String-lug the Fox (one of my all-time favourite
books), writes vividly of a pregnant vixen killed by a car and
finding she was carrying thirteen foetuses.
We speak of foxes as red foxes, as if they were all the same,
this is far from the case. In one family there will hardly be
two identical. They vary in size, of course, with males soon being
larger than females. They also vary in presence or absence of
white on the chest, paws and tip of the tail, all of which aids
Although foxes eat all the obvious things, they also consume a
surprising number of insects and other creepy-crawlies. They eat
considerable quantities of earthworms, which is one of the reasons
they come into conflict with humans who are proud of their lawns
or golf-greens. Such humans tend to object volubly when they discover
little pock-mark holes caused by someone digging all over their
pride and joy!
Glasgow Zoo, with its large, well-wooded site and river, contains
at least one pair of territory-holding foxes. A pair regularly
digs a breeding den somewhere near the Black Bear Enclosures
wooded ravine. The area contains so many anti-trespassing fences
that the foxes benefit from it being quiet and undisturbed. The
foxes reared seven cubs during 1998, and in June and July these
could be watched quite easily as they played amongst the pine
trees near the black bears. In 1999 the den was further south,
towards the lake, and six cubs were reared.
Because of their presence, we have learned the hard way how necessary
it is to shut in securely all of the free-range poultry and ducks.
Anything left out by mistake rarely survives to do this twice.
We try and reduce this by feeding the foxes, but this is not always
a plea on behalf of foxes everywhere. I know lots of people think
they are a nuisance ... but the reality is that urban foxes are here
that in mind, I'd like to ask people to dump their wheely bins -
they are too hard to get into and foxes are feeling the pinch.
am serious. Urban foxes have flourished for decades on the wastefulness
of domestic households. Now the easily ripped black binbag is gone.
don't live in packs. Each pair holds a territory, shares by mid-summer
with the young of that year.
food is plentiful a vixen can produce up to 13 cubs, though six
to eight is - thankfully - more usual.
late summer when the cubs start to wander off, mortality is very
high - great numbers of cubs are run over before they learn how
to co-exist with cars.
size is dependent on a number of factors and availability of food
is one of the most significant.
that food is in hard-to-reach wheely bins one can surmise that territories
will gradually become larger and foxes will turn to other sources.
was reminded of this the other day when talking to our vets.
described two incidents of foxes grabbing domestic cats in full
view of their owners.
felt that the cats survived with no more than bruising only because
of the understandably quick reactions of their owners.
not so sure. Adult cats usually have nothing much to fear from foxes.
In the winter, countryside cats have been tracked in snow going
right down into foxes' underground dens to take advantage of the
relative shelter and warmth.
are different, though, when starvation looms.
the zoo we have a perpetual problem with our resident pair of wild
try to put food out for them each night - even dog biscuits - because
if I don't, they wait for the ducks and chickens in the children's
farm to be let out to run about free before pouncing and carrying
have now lost five - one a day during the last week - and are reduced
to keeping them inside until there are plenty of people around.
I'm very down-hearted at the loss of some favourite birds, especially
Ferdinand, a white Indian Runner drake and the image of the talking
duck in the film Babe.
Brush with Nature has us all Foxed
half-buried objects are turning up in urban gardens all over Scotland.
We've had lots of calls from householders trying to come up with
possible explanations for the buried hard-boiled eggs or sausages
that have turned up in their gardens.
The culprits are probably foxes which are being fed by someone who
lives nearby. But their benefactors are probably baffled, too-by
the swift disappearance of the food they've just put out. The food
usually disappears far faster than it seems possible to eat it.
That's because the foxes - particularly vixens - often carry it
off to a secure spot nearby.
There the food is hastily buried, so the cache is usually in soil
soft and crumbly enough to take a hole which can be covered over
If you do feed your neighbourhood foxes, you'll find they become
extremely tame very quickly.
It seems there are foxes everywhere these days. I saw a dead one,
which had been killed by a car in the middIe of Glasgow.
Don't worry too much about foxes on the prowl around your
area. They don't bother cats at all and in country areas have even
been found. sharing the same underground dens in hard weather.
do make sure that all small domestic pets, such as rabbits and guinea
pigs, are safely shut up at night. . Foxes are very prolific with
litters of up to eight quite normal.
But road kills will eliminate many of the cubs which are running
around just now and gamekeepers also cull them.
Ayrshire gamekeeper once told me proudly that he shot or destroyed
every fox that entered "his" land. So far that year he had killed
more than 200.
Although foxes eat all the obvious things, they also consume a surprising
amount of insects and other creepy-crawlies. They eat considerable
quantities of earth worms, which is one of the reasons they come
into conflict with humans who are proud of their lawns or golf greens.
for keeping unusual domestic pets contrasts with the approach of Andy
and Gay Christie at their Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Sanctuary near
Beith in Ayrshire.
their Open Day on June 4th 2000, large notices warned
that as the fox cubs – some of which had been removed from their
natural dens to make pets – were destined to be returned to the
wild at some stage, it was essential that they were NOT tamed.
had to grow up with a fear and respect for humans – not run up to
them, squeeling and yelping expecting to be fed or cuddled.
Foxes nearing elimination?
along the motorway, my eye is always caught by companies with animal
A "Silver Fox" lorry passed me and it struck me that while we are
all familiar with foxes in our garden – correctly known as the Red
Fox – perhaps people are not aware that the Silver Fox is a simple
foxes can also be found as black foxes, but where the black hairs
are tipped with white, they are known as Silver Foxes.
These were developed for the fur industry and part of the Government's
campaign to ban fur farming will almost certainly see the elimination
of these captive foxes from Britain in due course.
vote recently probably didn't surprise anyone. Most city-based readers
tend to be anti, while those in the countryside hold the opposite
view. However, let's face it, foxes don't cause the vast majority
of us any problems whatsoever – even the city-dwelling ones. With
the invention of wheelie-bins we can't even complain about ripped
bin-bags any longer.
The Real Face of the "Villain" Fox
to mythology they don't attack cats and get on reasonably well with
quite a lot of dogs. Our local fox here at the zoopark seems to
enjoy deliberately barking to set off the German Short Haired pointers
walked in the grounds by one of the keepers each night.
are found across the northern hemisphere and have been introduced
into many other countries – so that people can hunt them with hounds
were introduced to Australia for this reason and are known to get
on quite well with the native dingo. My (Richard O'Grady's) father
, when he served in the forces in India, used to go fox-hunting
– except they seldom found any foxes and the local Black-Backed
Jackals wouldn't obligingly start running, rather, wisely vanishing
down the nearest hole.
flying into Luton Airport and looking out of the window can see,
at a glance, how the hunting lobby has altered – or maintained,
depending on your viewpoint – the rural landscape of England. Woods
or copses are evenly spaced out across a cultivated landscape to
provide sanctuaries for the red fox.
captivity a fox will easily live for 12-14 years – but in the wild
the average is 18 months and, in urban areas the principal cause
of death is being run over by cars.
the countryside, the argument is that the damage they do to stock
can be significant in certain circumstances. Anyone who has kept
poultry or waterfowl knows that, if you don't shut them in properly,
then the fox will get them sooner or later. However, shutting them
in consists of doing so at dusk and not letting them out until the
sun is well up in the morning. The so-called "blood lust"nature
of the fox is a complete misunderstanding.
fox is an opportunistic hunter and, faced with the sudden availability
of prey, such as a flock of hens, will kill everything in sight
almost by reflex. Left to their own devices the fox will hide all
the surplus birds killed, coming back for the others at intervals
over the next few days or weeks. But they aren't the Hannibal Lecter
they are made out to be – and fox-hunting, though emotive, isn't
the only facet of animal welfare.
attended the 1998 Sir William Weipers Memorial Lecture, organised
by the Vet School of Glasgow University.
The subject was " Immunology - Hitting Back at Bugs " by
Professor Ian McConnell and I was absolutely riveted. Half the lecture
was devoted to rabies in Europe.
I'm sure that, like me, many readers can remember only 10 years
ago the blood-curdling predictions about rabies on the continent
having spread through France right up to the edge of the Channel.
Some of us, perhaps, even thought that a rabid fox (or at least,
rat) might even stagger through the Tunnel. Not any more.
Thanks to the work of immunologists, all French foxes - the main
reservoir for this disease - across a wide area were vaccinated
A round biscuit (which foxes find very tasty) containing the vaccine,
was dropped from the air in the appropriate places by the thousands
- and it worked.
Rabies has now been pushed back far into what used to be Eastern
Europe and it is still retreating.
Visitors to the World Cup will, no doubt, be very relieved to hear
that France is now a totally rabies-free country.