Outfoxing the urban fox
- 22 October 2013
- From the section Magazine
There are an estimated 33,000 urban foxes in the UK's towns and cities. Outwitting the wily creatures is becoming an increasingly popular way to control them humanely.
There are many people who dislike urban foxes. They have been blamed for biting babies and killing penguins at London Zoo, but others feed them and treat them like pets.
Foxes first colonised UK towns and cities in the 1940s and an estimated 33,000 now live in them, according to research by Bristol University. There are thought to be 16 per square mile in London alone.
Dealing with urban foxes is complicated. They are protected under a series of wildlife laws and it is only permissible to control numbers in very limited ways. Even then methods such as shooting often aren't appropriate in urban areas.
But there are a small number of fox experts specialising in dealing with them in ways that will not harm the animal. They call it "humane deterrence" and don't like to be labelled as pest controllers. They are getting up to 50 calls a week from people who need help but don't want the fox harmed.
Killing foxes is pointless in urban areas, they argue, because another one will quickly take its place. Fox experts agree.
"A fox will constantly mark its territory," says John Bryant, who is based in Tonbridge, Kent, and was one of the first people to offer humane deterrence.
"The moment it stops it's obvious to others foxes that it isn't there any more and they will move in. So if you shoot a fox another will colonise the vacant territory in a matter of days."
The humane approach is about disturbing a fox's normal behaviour and, crucially, moving it to another part of its territory. This means its scent will still be left around the area so no other foxes will move in.
"Foxes repeat behaviour day after day but they are very smart and if an area becomes hostile they will move somewhere else," says Terry Woods, co-founder of Fox-A-Gon, which operates in London and the South East.
A fox's territory can cover up to 40 acres and in urban areas can include up to 400 gardens, says Bryant. If you deter it from one garden it could have another 399 to choose from, he says.
"It might only move to a garden a few doors down but that person might not think the fox is a problem. It's obviously going to return to a garden where it is welcome, not one where it isn't."
Methods used are often simple. One of the most popular, and most effective, is motion-activated sprinklers that repel foxes with a short but startling burst of water. Underground cameras are also used to hunt out and block hidden routes that foxes use to get in an area.
Brookside, a street in north London, typifies the divide of opinion there often is when it comes to urban foxes.
One resident, Sofia, has chickens and worries they will be killed by foxes. She has used many methods to deter them, including human hair after reading on the internet that foxes don't like the smell.
"It was a bit of a random request but my mum went to the hairdressers and asked for a bag of hair," she says. "I've wedged it in certain places but foxes have pulled it out. If a fox killed my chickens I'd be absolutely devastated."
Nobby lives a few doors down and has been feeding local foxes for years, luring them into his garden with dog food and biscuits.
"There are a lot of people round here that say 'you and your foxes are making a lot of noise and they're digging holes in my garden'. I tell them to go boil their heads."
Common complaints about foxes can usually be narrowed down to mess, pungent-smelling faeces, digging holes and noise. They screech when they fight over territory or female foxes during mating season.
But fox lovers point out that other animals, such as pet cats and dogs, are also responsible for such behaviour. Fox experts say there are many common myths surrounding foxes, including that they scavenge in bins every night and kill for fun. Both are untrue, they argue. Other people may beg to differ.
Problems are often because of people and not foxes, say the experts.
"You shouldn't encourage foxes into your home or try to tame them," says Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Bristol and an expert on foxes.
"They are incredibly intelligent but, just like people, they are all different. They will have different responses - some will be friendly but some won't."
He says fox attacks are extremely rare but the animals do explore using their teeth and nip things to see what they are.
"It's usually exploratory, inquisitive behaviour but you don't want to be on the receiving end.
"Britain has some of the highest-density fox populations in the world but they cause remarkably few problems. There are many benefits of having foxes in urban areas, including being nature's pest controllers when it comes to rats and feral pigeons.
"The vast majority of householders like to see the foxes in their garden. It's a bit of the countryside in town."
But fox supporters do, however, recognise they can be a nuisance. Vixens give birth around March and the cubs are normally driven out to find their own territories by their parents in the late summer and autumn.
"When the adolescent foxes are kicked out of home they become teenage hooligans," says Bryant.
"They come down streets in gangs and cause trouble. I've known them to bite through the brake pipes on cars. It's very rare, but I have dealt with a few cases."
But at the end of the day the argument for humane controls is simple, say those in the business.
"We can't exist in isolation," says Woods. "Nature runs in harmony and foxes are an important part of the ecosystem. If you start taking out what you don't like - the squirrels, the foxes, the badgers - you end up with nothing."