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Red Fox

The Red Fox Vulpes vulpes is a member of the dog family (Canidae) and has a slender dog-like appearance, with reddish fur, pointed ears and an elongated muzzle. The back of the ears and legs are black, and the fur under the throat and belly ranges from white to grey. Foxes are medium sized canids, males weighing from four to eight kilograms, and females weighing from four to six kilograms. The tail of a Fox is bushy in appearance, often with a conspicuous white tip, and is about a third of the body length (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012).

Foxes live in a den (earth), which may be a solitary hole, an abandoned (or occupied) Badger sett, or part of an earth made by another animal. Earths can be above or below ground, and Foxes may utilise unused or unoccupied buildings, garden sheds, or any other location that they find suitable (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012).

Foxes are territorial and use scent to mark their territories and avoid aggressive encounters with neighbours (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012). The size and shape of a territory is determined by the spatial and temporal availability of food, with territory size ranging from 0.1 km2 in urban areas to 40 km2 in upland areas. If a Fox is removed from its territory, it is likely that another Fox will move into the area (Baker et al, 2006).

Fox Cub at Whitley Bay © Richard Potts

Foxes prey on wild mammals, birds, insects and other invertebrates such as earthworms, and will take fruit. Foxes may occasionally kill large numbers of easy prey such as ground nesting birds or captive hens without eating many of them; a behaviour known as “surplus killing” and a response to unnatural stimuli. Where there is an abundance of food, foxes will cache food that cannot be eaten immediately (Natural England, 2012).

In Britain, foxes are found throughout the mainland, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey, but are absent from all the Scottish islands except Skye and Harris in the Outer Hebrides (Baker et al, 2006). Foxes began to colonise English cities in the 1940s and urban foxes are now recorded in every North East town and city (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012). At the start of the breeding season there are approximately 240,000 adult Foxes in Britain: 225,000 are found in rural areas and 33,000 in urban areas (Baker et al, 2006). In Northumberland and Durham our before, and after, 2000 distribution maps reflect areas of active survey rather than presenting a true picture of Fox distribution.

Fox numbers in the UK are thought to be stable; however there have not been enough long-term studies carried out to enable Fox population changes to be predicted with confidence (Baker et al, 2006). Between 1999-2000 and 2002 the Mammal Society carried out counts of Fox droppings in eight regions of mainland Britain, following the cessation of hunting due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. They found that there was no increase in Fox numbers overall; however there was a small increase in eastern England where it is thought that Fox numbers were recovering following historic persecution by gamekeepers. Fox numbers declined in southeast England at the same time, probably due to the spread of sarcoptic mange (Baker et al, 2006).

In the wild it is rare for a Fox to live longer than two years. In rural areas, where Fox numbers are controlled, up to 80% of the Fox population can be under a year old. In Bristol and London approximately half the population is under one year of age, and only 3% is older than five years (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012).

Records of Foxes in the North East are primarily sightings of individual animals. This is likely to be because foxes tend to travel and hunt on their own; however, they are not entirely solitary. A dominant male and female will form a pair that will travel, hunt and feed independently, but will meet for periods of time to play or groom each other. These pairs can be monogamous, but research at the University of Bristol has found that this is not always the case, and on some occasions male Foxes paired with two or more females (Baker et al, 2004). There may be other adult Foxes present in addition to the breeding pair. These Foxes are referred to as “helpers”, and are usually offspring of the pair that have remained with the parents beyond the usual age when foxes disperse (www.thefoxwebsite.org, 2012).

‘The Greyhound Fox’, Thomas Bewick

There are still several fox-hunts in the North East area, now limited to drag-hunting. For example, the Tynedale Hunt was established in 1839 in south Northumberland to “help control the fox population in [the] area” and to “give people the pleasure of taking part in an activity that brings together the art of hunting hounds, horsemanship, social contact and a love of the countryside” (www.thetynedalehunt.org, 2012). However, there is little evidence to suggest that fox-hunts played any role in the control of Fox populations (Baker et al, 2006). A government enquiry chaired by Lord Burns in 2000, and subsequent public hearings in 2002, led to the passing of the Hunting Act in 2004. The Hunting Act 2004 came into force on 18 February 2005 and “bans hunting with dogs of all wild mammals in England and Wales, including fox, deer, hare and mink, except where it is carried out in accordance with the conditions of one of the exemptions set out in the Act” (Defra, 2012). The ban on fox-hunting still causes controversy and groups such as the Countryside Alliance are campaigning for repeal of the ban.

Fox numbers in the UK have been manipulated by hunting for many years; despite being controlled as vermin they never suffered the severe 19th-century decline other carnivores did, as sufficient Foxes needed to be retained to support hunting. There is a long and complex social history associated with foxes and fox-hunters which has had practical outcomes on the Fox population and the North East’s countryside. On the ground, artificial earths were created to hold Foxes in place and whole landscapes were modified by the planting of small woodlands and gorse patches (coverts) judiciously placed in the landscape to harbour foxes and to provide good runs, as hounds pursued the fox. One of the most extreme examples was at Broomshields Hall, near Satley, Durham in the 1870s when the then owner had artificial earths built around the estate in order to boost the Fox population, and had a covert planted on the opposite hillside in the shape of a fox in full gallop with his tail streaming out behind him (Cowen, 1955). A glance at any Ordnance Survey map will show just how common such coverts are.

In order to ensure there were enough foxes to hunt it was common to move foxes around the country and on occasion they were imported from Europe to boost the local population. In 1874 N.W. Apperley (1926) records Fox cubs caught in Wales being given to the North Durham Hunt. Richardson (1922) writes “In certain places where foxes were too numerous litters would be moved in the spring to other part of the country”, country meaning the hunt’s operational area. In the early years of the 20th century Foxes from Norway and Austria were released on the Northumberland/Durham border (Cowen, 1955; Richardson, 1922), breeding with the local stock after it was decimated by sarcoptic mange. Foxes and fox-hounds were also prone to rabies until it was eradicated from England in the early 20th century; Apperley (1924), referring to the North Durham Fox Hounds in 1871, writes “Twelve and a half couples had already died of rabies and dumb madness, and it was agreed that the remainder of the pack be destroyed and a new one purchased.”

Just before the Second World War there was an outbreak of albinism in foxes in the southeast foothills of the Cheviots. This was detailed in the 1949 edition of the Journal of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland but more interestingly resulted in The White Foxes of Gorfenletch: a novel by Northumberland naturalist Henry Tegner which describes a social history of the white foxes, the people who hunted them and the wildlife of Northumberland at that time (Tegner, 1954).

MARS Fox

In 2012, Fox numbers in the North East are heavily controlled for game preservation, but despite this the Fox remains a common and wide-spread carnivore.

References

Written by Kirstin Aldous and Terry Coult (last updated Nov 2012)