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Content Updated: 10th August 2015

SEASONAL UPDATE: August 2015

Summer scene

Well, August has arrived and, despite being the final month of meteorological summer, you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve jumped straight to autumn. For the second time in just over a month, the weather presenters are using the expression “unusually strong winds” when describing the low pressure systems that are passing over the UK at the moment. In fact, many people have commented on how it seems to be getting windier and, last month, the Met Office released some statistics on the number of calm days (i.e. where at least 20 weather stations recorded wind gusts not exceeding 10 knots/11mph). According to the Met Office blog on 24th July, so far this year we’ve seen only eight such days (none of which fell in May, June or July) and this represents the lowest number of calm days across the UK for at least the last 20 years. The reason? A lack of high pressure systems over the UK, it seems. Indeed, the jet stream (that thin ribbon of fast-flowing air in the upper atmosphere that drives weather systems over us) is sitting lower in the Atlantic than is normal for this time of year. Ordinarily, at this time of year, the jet stream passes across northern Scotland, and the bulk of the low pressure systems skirt the UK. This summer, however, the jet stream has been sitting to the south of the UK, resulting in the low pressure systems passing directly over us. Concerns have been expressed in the last year or so that the jet stream is starting to weaken, causing it to meander more and bringing potentially longer and colder winters to the northern hemisphere. Time will tell, but it seems an opportune time for Barack Obama to unveil his “clean energy plan” for the United States.

If you’re planning on taking your chances with the British weather and heading out this month, let’s take a quick look at what you might find.

Roe ruttingMammals: August is the month of the roe deer rut and this is a good time to get out in the woods and fields looking for these enigmatic deer. The males (bucks) will have established territories by now and in some places they will bark, both to notify other deer that this patch is theirs and to draw in females (does) from the surrounding area. Some deer will have females hanging around and it is common at this time of year to see a buck in hot pursuit of a doe, frequently sniffing at her rear end (as beautifully illustrated by Raymond Leinster) to check how close she is to estrus. Courtship may involve several minutes of chasing, often in circles around a tree or bush (producing a flattened track of vegetation known as a ‘roe ring’), to stimulate the doe to ovulate. This frenetic activity explains why it is not uncommon to stumble across roe bucks lying in quiet forest stands that don’t immediately get up and flee when they spot you: they’re exhausted! This month is also when you might come across roe kids wandering around on their own - their mothers often leave them temporarily while they seek out the local bucks. In fact, all deer youngsters will be out and about by now, following the herd and frequently playing together in small crèches. Elsewhere, the young of other species are well grown – fox and badger cubs will be increasingly independent by now, although the latter will still be showing many of their typical cub play behaviours and are still a joy to watch.

Stoats and weasels are very active this month as the family unit starts breaking down and the young begin to disperse. There is also a lot of rustling in the vegetation and leaf litter. Some of this rustling is made by reptiles - more on that in a minute - but some is the result of the daily routine of our small mammals. Indeed, August is a great month to look out for mice and voles visiting bird feeders checking for spilt seed. This time of year is often when people notice lots of dead shrews around, most without any obvious signs of trauma, and question whether some sort of plague has hit the population. Previous authors have suggested a wide range of theories to account for this die-off, including that later summer thunderclaps scare them to death. The actual reason, however, is nothing quite so dramatic; these small mammals are short-lived (only about 16 months) and, with their rather frenetic breeding season starting to wind-down, many simply die of exhaustion. In fact, some authors suggest that the entire adult population dies off during the late summer and autumn. The strong scent glands in the skin of shrews make them distasteful to many predators (particularly domestic cats, it seems) and thus the bodies tend to remain in situ, when those of other small mammals (e.g. mice and voles) are quickly cleaned up by predators. It seems that only owls really rather relish these insectivores.

August tends to be the main holiday month, being the peak of the school holidays, and as such there is a mass ‘get away’ to our coasts. The beach isn’t just a place for rock pooling and picnics, though. While around the coastline keep an eye on the waters for pods of common dolphin that are found close to shore at the moment; there are also seals and whales to be found at this time of year, as well as basking sharks.

Chough family in CornwallBirds: If you’re on the coast whale-watching, keep an eye out for our largest tern species diving for sand eels to feed their rather scruffy-looking young waiting nearby; sandwich terns, or swallows of the sea as some refer to them, can be seen on almost any beach at this time of year as they search for food for their ever-hungry chicks. Many other coastal waders will have young now too, so it’s worth keeping eyes peeled for oystercatchers, turnstones, plover and sanderlings, while greenshanks, redshanks and wood sandpipers are among the passage waders found in the UK during August. Elsewhere, most adult choughs (a red beaked member of the crow family - left) will be followed by squawking fledglings and our garden is full of recently fledged sparrows, goldfinches and starlings in the mornings. I have noticed increasingly large flocks of thrushes in my more rural haunts, which has given my last couple of early walks more of an autumnal feel than normal for this time of year. The red crown and red breast of male linnets is a common sight the countryside as we progress through August; the birds flock during this month which makes them easy to spot, but the red plumage fades as we move into autumn and winter.

Most of our raptors will have also finished breeding now, which means they’re a bit more reclusive. Hobbies, however, are the latest breeders and many will still have dependants, which means that there are still opportunities to watch their breath-taking aerial acrobatics as they hunt for food for their chicks. One bird of prey that is more commonly seen at this time of year is the osprey. Ospreys are usually seen around coastal areas and fish farms during August as they pass through on their migration to their overwintering grounds in South Africa. Swallows appear to have left now, but there are still a few swifts screaming overhead here at the moment. House martins are still busy; they’re also late breeders and may still be feeding chicks come October.

Reptiles and Amphibians: August is the month of baby herps, and there are plenty of tiny frogs in our garden at the moment (friends of mine have posted photos of miniature toads in their gardens too); that’s my excuse for not mowing the lawn. If you have a compost heap in your garden, it’s worth checking it for slowworms and even grass snakes; the latter lay their leathery white eggs among the decaying vegetation, taking advantage of the warmth it gives off to expedite the development of their young. Ordinarily, I recommend early morning on warm days as the best time to look for reptiles but, with the current weather, they may well need to spend longer sunbathing. Slowworms, grass snakes and common lizards can be found almost anywhere, from parks and large gardens to coastal dune systems. The small olive-grey young common lizards (below, right) often hang around in groups of three or four, making them a little more obvious. Overall, heathland is your best bet for reptiles, so if you have any locally it is well worth a visit at this time of year.

Juvenile common lizardsInvertebrates: A walk in the New Forest last weekend revealed a variety of butterflies still on the wing, including brimstones, skippers, blues, peacocks and silver-washed fritillaries, so it’s worth getting out for a walk in your local fields or woodland if the weather changes and the sun puts in an appearance. Any butterflies that you come across, please log via the Big Butterfly Count 2015 website. Our garden is also home to a number of orangey-yellow and black caterpillars at the moment; when they metamorphose, these will become the striking black and red cinnabar moth. There are also plenty of bees around and August is a great month to look for Britain’s 22 bumblebee species. One bee species in particular to keep an eye out for this month is the tree bumblebee, with its reddish thorax and black abdomen with white tail; please log any sightings with the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society. Also around this month is the pine weevil and, as the name suggests, this yellow-flecked black beetle can be found in conifer plantations. The jet black devil’s coach horse beetles often start entering garden sheds at this time of year and are also often found under logs in deciduous woodland and grassland; confront the beetle and it will raise its tail in a scorpion-like manner.

Perhaps not to everyone’s taste is this month’s star invertebrate: the wasp spider. The females of this stunning species, decorated with a striking black and yellow striped abdomen, climb up into bankside vegetation and sit in the middle of their webs waiting for prospective males with which to mate. If you’re lucky enough to find a female in her web, have a good look around the periphery for the male, which is tiny by comparison, who will delicately pluck at her web trying to convince her that he’s a mate and not a snack. The webs of this originally Mediterranean species are easy to spot thanks to the presence of a thick zig-zag structure running down vertically from the centre. This structure is called the stabilimentum because it was once, erroneously as it turns out, thought to help stabilise the web; nobody knows its actual purpose, although it has been suggested to attract curious insects.

Before we leave invertebrates, the Royal Society of Biology has launched a poll to find Britain’s favourite insect – you can view the contenders and cast your votes here.

Plants and Fungi: Surprisingly fragrant thistles are in bloom this month (look closely, they’re often being attacked by caterpillars, particularly of the cinnabar moth), as are large pale pink blooms of thyme that are often smelled before they’re spotted. Searching along stone walls may reveal the delicate pink flowers of Ivy-leaved toadflax, grey woolly growths of grey cushion moss, and the bright yellow tubular flowers of the yellow cordylis. Another yellow flower out this month adds a splash of colour to shingly shores; the beautiful, but poisonous, yellow-horned poppy is in bloom along coastal fringes of southern England during August. Deadly nightshade, with its shiny black berries mounted on a setting of five pale green sepals, can also be found; it thrives on chalk and limestone soils. Fungi-wise, it is still relatively quiet (although the cool wet summer we seem to be having may well lead to a bumper crop this autumn) but some large parasol mushrooms can be found in grassland this month.

Finally, many trees are starting to produce/ripen their fruit and the Natural History Museum wants your help as they launch their survey of tree health; you can find out more about the survey and download an ID guide from their website.

As regular readers of these updates will know, I normally use the ‘pick of the month’ section to showcase a seasonally-relevant species or behaviour that isn’t covered elsewhere on this site. This time last year, for example, we took a whistle-stop tour of the high octane world of stoats and weasels. This month, however, I want to do something a little different. Many of you will no doubt be aware that ever since the Conservatives formed a majority government following the general election in May, there has been much talk about attempts to repeal the Hunting Act. The vote for a total repeal of the Act, which would make it legal for mounted hunts with more than three dogs to chase and kill foxes, was postponed after the Scottish National Party confirmed that they would vote against the motion, albeit for entirely the wrong reasons. An alternative to a complete repeal has been proposed whereby the Act would be amended to allow the use of more dogs to flush the fox to waiting guns. This is permitted under Scottish law and the Conservatives appear to be of the opinion that the SNP would find it hard to vote against such a change, without admitting that the Scottish Act is flawed. With supporters on both sides taking to the streets, press and social media I have seen a lot of debates where speculation or assumption was passed off as fact. So, this month I want to take a little time to look at some of the arguments surrounding this controversial topic.

Pick of the Month for July – Foxes and the Hunting Act

Red foxBefore we start, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. I am not, and have never been, a hunter. I do not support the hunting of any species solely on the grounds of tradition, supposition or faith. I do support the hunting of species where there is empirical evidence to demonstrate a need, provided any culling is carried out appropriately – by which I mean, within the law and using a humane method. I am not naive on countryside matters nor on rural economics. I live in a city of about 254,000 people (which I guess makes me a ‘townie’), but spend much of my spare time out in the New Forest or the Cornish countryside observing and photographing wildlife. My circle of friends includes farmers, deer stalkers, pest controllers, wildlife rehabilitators and animal rights campaigners. I am a meat eater and, in particular, support my local game dealer/butcher by buying venison stalked as part of local deer management plans. With that out of the way, let’s get back on track.

I have covered this topic is in an assertion/rebuttal fashion, addressing some of the questionable statements I have seen in the papers and on social media over the last month or so.

Foxes aren’t cuddy, fluffy pets; they’re vicious predators
This is a statement that I have seen many times on social media; but is it true? It’s easy to argue semantics here; foxes, being fur-covered mammals, can be ‘fluffy’ and, as anyone who has spent any time observing them will know, their general modus operandi is to flee when confronted – it is rare for a fox to stand and fight, rarer still for one to pick a fight, which calls into question the adjective ‘vicious’. It has always struck me, however, that such statements actually mean something along the lines of: foxes kill other animals and, for that reason, should be considered dangerous and either given a wide berth or removed before they get chance to wreak their havoc.

Foxes are predators and part of this means that they kill other animals to sustain themselves and their families. Sometimes such prey includes family pets, which can obviously make their behaviour very upsetting and controversial to some. There is no getting away from either of those facts. Foxes do not, however, generally represent a danger to humans. Certainly, there have been reports of cases of foxes biting people but, despite the rush to judge by the media, the circumstances around such incidents are largely unknown and this makes it tough to understand the cause and tougher still to ascribe blame, even if the latter was a helpful course of action. For me, the truly telling part of all this is that foxes have lived in our towns and cities since at least the 1930s and, despite an estimated UK population of about 64 million people and 260,000 foxes, fewer than 10 unprovoked cases of foxes biting people have ever been confirmed. The toll foxes take on pets and livestock is more difficult to assess and there are undoubtedly situations where fox control is necessary on economic and animal welfare grounds. Ultimately, however, we cannot expect to be able to keep small prey items free range in our gardens and assume that foxes will ignore the instincts that they have relied upon to keep them alive for the last two million years or so because these prey items are owned and therefore off the menu.

Foxes kill for fun
This is probably the most common statement I hear about foxes. It invariably stems from the observation that, upon gaining access to a chicken coop, foxes have the unfortunate habit of killing all the birds. The owner comes down the following morning to find a coop full of dead chickens and, in such an emotionally stressful situation, the last thing people want to think is that it’s their fault for not securing their chickens properly. So, it’s easier to blame the fox for having the audacity to try breaking into the coop in the first place. The fact that so many carcasses are left lying around suggests that hunger wasn’t the motive, so what’s left? Ergo, it’s a natural enough assumption that a fox got in and killed them just for the sake of it (or for ‘blood lust’, ‘fun’, ‘sport’, ‘out of spite’, however you want to reconcile it). If you leave the chickens where they lay, however, something interesting happens – they start disappearing, a few each night over the course of several nights. (Since starting this website I’ve had testimony from three separate readers in different parts of the country who have observed this and I’m interested to hear from others.) So, what’s happening? Simple. The fox is coming back to remove the other birds, many of which will be cached in the vicinity for later retrieval. If the fox is coming back, though, doesn’t this suggest that, just maybe, the fox wasn’t killing the chickens just for the sake of it? Yes. Yes, it does.

Indeed, you only need to do a little digging on the subject to find that this so-called ‘surplus killing’ (killing more than you need to sustain you for the time being) is common among carnivores and caching (storing food for later use) is a behaviour that appears to have evolved to deal with the spoils. Nobody knows exactly why a fox makes that decision to take kill all the birds, but there is some good circumstantial evidence to suggest it has a lot to do with how much the birds panic. A good example was highlighted relatively recently when a friend of a friend’s duck house was broken into by a fox. The fox was unable to get out the way it got in and was still in the pen alongside all the ducks the following morning; none had been killed. The reason, it was suggested, was that the ducks hadn’t panicked when the fox entered; they were all calmly sitting on their nests. Chickens, by contrast, have a habit of being flighty – squawking, jumping and flapping when a fox gets in. This is classic prey behaviour and triggers the fox’s catch/kill response. In a normal situation, where a fox had gone for, say, a pigeon in a flock, the rest of the birds have scattered by the time the fox has his meal; there is nothing in close proximity to re-trigger his hunting response. Chickens, by contrast, are quite literally cooped-up and cannot escape. This artificial situation means that the fox’s hunting response is continually triggered until all the birds are dead.

Interestingly, many people dismiss this suggestion out of hand as nonsense, but provide no alternative other than ‘foxes are evil/spiteful’. In the end, though, surplus killing and caching fits the evidence we have quite nicely and is, in my opinion, a far more elegant explanation for such a fascinating behaviour.

The fox population has exploded and foxes are now much bolder
Red fox by treeThis is a difficult comment to tackle because there really is no empirical evidence for either part of the statement. There is no regular census of fox numbers in the UK, and the ones that have been done are sometimes criticised for giving inaccurate results, although no better approach has been attempted or even proposed. Comparing survey-based data to those conducted from field scat analysis does, however, yield similar results, and the current thinking is that there are probably about 250,000 foxes in Britain come winter. How many of these live in our towns and cities can only be guessed at (the oft-cited 33,000 was a guess based on habitat types that was made in the mid-1990s) but, again, it is suspected to be up to 45,000 animals. The scat survey conducted in the early 2000s and the questionnaire data analysed a couple of years ago suggests that the fox population probably has increased, but only marginally (perhaps 10,000 animals over the past 15 years or so); in the same time, the human population of the UK has risen by about 5 million. The most interesting finding for the 2014 survey was that there was no significant correlation between the average fox density and the number of sightings. In other words, seeing more foxes around isn't necessarily an indication that there are a lot of foxes in your neighbourhood.

Over the past decade or so, many generations of foxes will have grown up in towns and cities, learning that they have little to fear from humans provided they keep their distance. This may lead to foxes being seen more often during the daytime, which people typically aren’t expecting even though it’s actually fairly common. Researchers at the University of Bristol have shown that the more often foxes are seen, the more likely people are to put food out for them and, hence, the more likely they are to be seen. This combination of factors may lead to foxes being more comfortable around humans and this is interpreted as ‘boldness’ by some. It is very important to understand though that, just like all other animals, foxes are individuals – some are naturally bolder and more inquisitive than others – so one fox standing and staring at you when you expect it to run doesn’t mean all foxes will stand and stare at you. Moreover, not running away is not equivalent to being out to get you!

Foxes need controlling
Back in October 1985, Oxford University biologist and pioneering fox researcher David Macdonald wrote a fascinating article on the urban fox for BBC Wildlife Magazine. In the article, Professor Macdonald noted that “It is difficult to calibrate nuisance” and this sound bite has always stuck in my mind. For some, the pleasure gained from watching fox cubs romp in their garden outweighs the damage they cause while playing. For others, waking up to a flowerbed that has been dug up, or fox scat on your gardening shoes is frustrating beyond measure. What this illustrates is that even if there is only one fox in your neighbourhood, if it’s causing you problems you may well be of the opinion that there are ‘too many’ foxes and that they need controlling.

Typically, when we talk of animal management and controlling a species we are thinking about maintaining an appropriate number for the type of habitat to prevent overpopulation and any associated damage to forestry/agriculture. In the case of foxes, however, it is a bit different and the peak periods of control tend to be associated with particular periods in the farming calendar, particularly lambing. There is also considerable variation in how significant a problem foxes are – some hill farmers I know will only shoot foxes on their land when a specific problem occurs, while others will shoot quite intensively in the month or so leading up to lambing and continue until the lambs are considered big enough to look after themselves. The problem with removing foxes (via whatever means at your disposal) is that it becomes a constant process and really needs to be coordinated with your neighbours – otherwise, you’re just creating a void into which neighbouring foxes can disperse come autumn/winter. Many farmers also find that often the removal of the trouble-making fox is sufficient to stop livestock losses because the fox that replaces it is less interested in chickens or lambs.

In towns and cities, culling is more difficult owing to the regulations governing the discharging of firearms in built-up areas. This difficulty, coupled with the observation that fox densities tend to be higher (and thus the potential for space to be quickly filled greater) in urban areas means there is seldom a strong case for culling foxes in these environments. Ergo, most councils and animal charities will propound deterrent options (see my article on deterring foxes for more) instead.

So, with no evidence to support an ‘explosion’ in fox numbers and the logistics involved in culling these animals, cash-strapped local authorities are reluctant to get involved – particularly given that it’s relatively easy to build a fox-proof chicken run.

Drag huntThe Hunting Act is a bad piece of legislation
A friend of mine summed this up quite nicely a couple of weeks ago when he pointed out that this statement takes an argument of principle and makes it one of procedure. Does this mean politicians, who are the ones frequently making this statement, support the principle of banning fox hunting with hounds and would thus vote for a strengthening of the law? Apparently not. The answer, it seems, to “bad” legislation is to repeal it rather than improve it. In the end, there are certainly issues with the Act and, in particular, there is a fairly strong case for an amendment to allow a small pack of hounds to be used to flush foxes from plantations, where stalking is largely impossible owing to the terrain, to waiting marksmen (i.e. legalising the ‘foot packs’ that are permitted under Scottish law). I have also heard reasonably compelling arguments for allowing stalkers to employ up to four dogs to track deer and foxes and to help with the recovery of any wounded specimens. It is also worth remembering that, although fox hunters are the most vocal opponents of the Act, it is not all about foxes; the Act also serves to regulate stag (red deer) hunting and hare coursing and it is important not to lose sight of this when deciding how the bill should be managed. Regardless of its short-comings, the Act still makes an attempt to bring Britain into the 21st Century with its animal welfare laws and any legislation that seeks to put an end to 700 years of a tradition cannot be expected to stand unchallenged.

The Hunting Act hasn’t saved a single fox
Another very common comment in these debates, it usually proceeds the statement above, and one that misses the point of the legislation. The Act was never intended to be a fox conservation act; it was designed to regulate the manner in which the animals could be killed.

Even the Burns Report admitted that in some cases hunting with hounds was more efficient than shooting
The Burns Report noted that “None of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. Both snaring and shooting can have serious adverse welfare implications.” There are situations, particularly in forestry blocks, where the use of dogs to flush foxes to competent marksmen is the only efficient method of fox control. In such circumstances there is an argument for the use of foot packs (i.e. men working dogs on foot on the trail of a fox) and this activity is still legal in Scotland. The dogs are still, however, used to drive the foxes out of the plantation to waiting guns. In most situations, however, stalking and shooting with a suitable calibre rifle by a competent marksman is the most humane method of culling foxes, deer and hare. Being more humane and having the potential to cull more animals in a given time window combine to make this a more efficient method of control than traditional mounted hunts. The use of shotguns for such culling is generally considered inappropriate and the wounding rate likely to be higher than in cases where rifles are used. Where the shot is not clean, the use of ‘long dogs’ should be permitted to track and recover the wounded animal.

Being chased for several hours to be killed by a pack of dogs is cruel
This will always be a contentious point. Hunt supporters cite that the lead dog’s natural instinct is to administer a "quick nip" to the back of the fox's head, which serves to kill the animal outright. (The argument goes that because a foxhound weighs between 70-80lbs, roughly four or five times that of a fox, and has a powerful jaw, a single bite is all that's required to kill the fox.) Those opposed to hunting, however, point to various veterinary pathologies conducted on foxes recovered after a hunt has passed through that indicate death by either disembowelment or multiple bite trauma (typically to the face or rump) and no indication that a bite to the neck has been inflicted. This method of attack is the common modus operandi for dogs, unlike cats that tend to suffocate their prey. Pro-hunters also often argue that the fox does not anticipate death and so is not unduly traumatised by the pursuit. This is one of many unknowns. We cannot be certain what a chased fox is thinking or feeling.  For that reason, opponents of such hunting prefer to err on the side of caution and not subject the fox to such pursuit in the first place. Then there is no question.

Shot foxes slink off to die in agony from gangrene
Red fox portraitIt is often suggested that the alternatives to mounted fox hunts (i.e. shooting, gassing, snaring or poisoning) would all inflict much more pain and suffering on the foxes. It is certainly true that snares, poison and poison gas can be unpleasant ways to euthanase an animal, although it should be noted that the latter two of these are already illegal under UK law and have been for some time now. Shooting too has its potential problems and even the best marksman cannot ensure a clean kill every time. With experience and a suitable calibre rifle, however, such cases are rare and long dogs can be used to track and/or retrieve wounded targets. This is the way many stalkers/gamekeepers already operate. I have never fired a gun, so I cannot testify, but I am told by several stalkers who cull foxes on a regular basis that the use of shotguns to target foxes is generally inappropriate and much more likely to lead to a wounded animal than a rifle shot. We have no data to even suggest how many foxes are wounded and never recovered, but we do know that foxes have a startling ability to heal and I’m not aware of even a single case of gangrene having been reported in foxes.

The Burns report ignores the fact that hunting with dogs is a wildlife management tool, in which selectivity rather than numbers killed is important
This is an interesting concept, because immediately it raises the question of how is the fox chosen. When contracted to carry out pest control on a farm, for example, a stalker will often spend time surveying the area and watching the movement of the local foxes to identify the problem individual, which is then shot. More foxes may be shot, according to the landowner’s request. I have found no evidence to suggest that mounted hunts attempt the same degree of selectivity, targeting known problem animals, weak or sick individuals. (I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows different.) Assuming this to be the case, pending further evidence to the contrary, it seems unlikely that the hunt can even be sure that the fox they kill is the same fox that they started chasing, which appears to undermine the argument that the activity is selective. Indeed, the observation that foxes are sometimes accidentally killed by hounds on a drag hunt suggests that the hounds do not exclusively follow an initial scent trail. Recent prosecutions of hunts for raising foxes believed to be subsequently used for hunting purposes (which has long been reported) adds further doubt to the suggestion that mounted hunts are a wildlife management tool. It may also be argued that hunts take the weak/sick individuals, because stronger/fitter animals get away, although the practise of digging out foxes that have gone to ground suggests luck has at least as much to do with a fox’s chances of escaping as its health.

Fox hunting most closely mimics the natural effects of missing apex predators. It helps keep the fox population at a healthy and sustainable level
In Britain adult foxes have very few (arguably no) natural predators; they may sometimes fall foul of badgers or golden eagles, but such cases appear rare. Elsewhere in the world foxes are displaced by both coyotes (in North America) and lynx (in northern Europe). In the case of coyotes a chase, catch and kill method may be employed, while lynx are ambush predators and don’t appear to chase foxes down. To the best of my understanding, neither coyotes nor lynx make prolonged chases; nor do they attempt to dig out foxes that have retreated underground. Furthermore, being natural does not invariably translate to ‘preferred’ or ‘better’. In the US, for example, many deer are killed by chronic wasting disease; a disease in the same class as BSE (‘mad cow disease’) and scrapie that causes a progressive loss of condition in the deer and, eventually, death. The cause of this disorder isn’t known, but it is hypothesised that a mutated protein is to blame and, assuming so, it can probably be considered natural mortality – that doesn’t, however, mean it’s a better way for a deer to die than, say, having a heart attack swimming a river, freezing to death during winter, or being shot during hunting season.

Generally, on this website, I try and present both sides of the argument and let the reader make up their own mind on the subject with the evidence offered. That is a tall order when it comes to the mounted hunting of foxes with hounds, because it largely boils down to what one considers a cruel practice. I have always had a strong inclination to go where the evidence leads and, as it currently stands, I do not believe there is the evidence to support the hunting lobby with their claims that such hunting is a selective, effective or humane means of controlling foxes. As controversial as it will sound to some of my readers, I would be in favour of an evidence-gathering exercise on this. To my mind, resumption of hunting by a series of carefully selected mounted hunts that provide unrestricted access to independent monitors, who collect and autopsy each fox caught would allow us to answer many of the above questions accurately. At the end of the season, we should possess a scientific data set showing how many hunts were conducted, how long they lasted, how many foxes were killed and the cause of death (how many died from that much referenced ‘nip to the back of the neck’?). Given how vanishingly unlikely such a study would be to take place, it seems only reasonable that people would empathise with the fox and err on the side of caution, finding other and more humane ways of controlling foxes. As a friend of mine recently put it, "Foxes may have to be culled in some cases as an objective economic necessity to protect livestock, but there's something unhealthy and disturbing  in making a party of it." If there really isn’t a more humane way for a fox to die than at the jaws of a pack of hounds after a prolonged chase, perhaps we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think in the last 700 years.

Whatever you’re up to this month, take care and I hope to see you back here in September. As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page (Note: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support.

Fox and cat

I should take a moment to put the above photo into context. Here an adult fox jumped up on a tank cover, on which the farm cat was laying, to drink from a puddle. Thirst quenched, the fox walked along the edge of the tank and jumped off the left-hand (from this photo) edge, before skirting around the front. At all times the cat was treated with apparent caution and the fox remained at least 1.5m (5ft) from the cat. Thanks to Meads Meads for letting me use the image.

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What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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