Glasgow Zoo Park
Home
Glasgowzoo has now closed these pages are for information only

Foxes

RED FOXES - AN UNEASY ALLIANCE

by Richard O’Grady, Director of Glasgow Zoopark.

At 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; it’s 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; it’s just that so far foxes haven’t been able to figure out how to open the lid of a wheely-bin! Grey squirrels can’t 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 animal’s 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 weather!

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 neighbour’s 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 shouldn’t 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 individual identification.

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 totally successful.

Support Urban Foxes

Here's 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 to stay.

With 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.

I am serious. Urban foxes have flourished for decades on the wastefulness of domestic households. Now the easily ripped black binbag is gone.

Foxes don't live in packs. Each pair holds a territory, shares by mid-summer with the young of that year.

When food is plentiful a vixen can produce up to 13 cubs, though six to eight is - thankfully - more usual.

In 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.

Territory size is dependent on a number of factors and availability of food is one of the most significant.

Now 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.

I was reminded of this the other day when talking to our vets.

They described two incidents of foxes grabbing domestic cats in full view of their owners.

They felt that the cats survived with no more than bruising only because of the understandably quick reactions of their owners.

I'm 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.

Things are different, though, when starvation looms.

At the zoo we have a perpetual problem with our resident pair of wild foxes.

I 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 one off.

We 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.

Personally, 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

Strange, 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 again quickly.
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.

But 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.

An 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.

Don't Tame Foxes

The trend for keeping unusual domestic pets contrasts with the approach of Andy and Gay Christie at their Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Sanctuary near Beith in Ayrshire.

At 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.

They 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.

Silver Foxes nearing elimination?

Travelling along the motorway, my eye is always caught by companies with animal names.
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 colour variation.

Red 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.


The Real Face of the "Villain" Fox

The anti-hunting 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.

Contrary 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.

Foxes are found across the northern hemisphere and have been introduced into many other countries so that people can hunt them with hounds and horses.

They 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.

Anyone 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.

In 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.

In 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.

A 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.

Immunology

I 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 against rabies.
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.