Red Fox Interaction with Humans - The Verminous Fox

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In a world where humans keep animals as cherished pets and rely on them for a source of income, any animal that could potentially see them as prey or competition is unlikely to be welcomed. In Wild Mammals and the Land, a 1951 publication by the Ministry of Agriculture, the authors considered that:In a world where humans keep animals as cherished pets and rely on them for a source of income, any animal that could potentially see them as prey or competition is unlikely to be welcomed. In Wild Mammals and the Land, a 1951 publication by the Ministry of Agriculture, the authors considered that:

War on the fox must continue to be the order of the day, and such warfare must be carried on by every means and with every weapon that is both practicable and humane.”

Indeed, for centuries foxes have been breaching the security of smallholdings and leaving damage in their wake. Consequently, many are of the opinion that the fox is a major agricultural pest and that the only good fox is a dead fox.

I cannot even begin to estimate how many times I have heard someone say that foxes kill for fun or sport; breaking into a chicken coop, slaughtering all the birds and taking only one, or in some cases not taking any. I have discussed this subject many times on this website (see Do foxes kill for fun?), but few people who feel aggrieved by the fox are open to the rationale behind these actions. In some ways, I can understand this: after all, knowing why it happens doesn’t bring back your chickens. Moreover, many people seem unable accept any other possibility, upon finding their coop full of dead birds, than that the fox did this for fun.

An illustration called "A Fox Family Dinner" from Volume 1 (Mammalia) of Brehm's Life of Animals, published by German naturalist Alfred Brehm in 1895. This depicts a scene many of us now associate with foxes - a fox with spoils from the farmyard. It is possible to keep foxes and chickens apart, but it can be difficult. - Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Problematically, some people also seem of the opinion that it is their right to keep chickens free range in their garden without fear of them being nabbed by a predator. A fox should know and respect the boundaries – they certainly shouldn’t have the affront to dig under a fence or chew through wire that they thought was good enough protection. Unfortunately, the universe is not sympathetic to our hopes, dreams and desires and foxes are opportunistic carnivorans; food is food to them and they don’t stop to think whether they’re going to annoy or offend any humans in the process of acquiring it.

Public attitudes to foxes

In the southern German city of Munich during 2000, Andreas König surveyed the attitudes of suburban residents to urban foxes and found that, while few of the respondents were scared of the fox, just over half thought numbers should be controlled to reduce the threat from the fox tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis (see Parasites and Diseases). More than half of the respondents were pleased to see the foxes about and considered that they had a right to live there. In Britain, a joint survey during the late 1990s by The Mammal Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species found that foxes were the fourth most commonly recorded species in gardens, occurring in 68% of surveys. Despite such abundance, many (admittedly now dated) surveys suggest comparatively few complaints are made to local councils.

A study published in 1985 by Stephen Harris at Bristol University looked at the number of complaints made to local councils about foxes – in an area of London with a population of just under 300,000 there were about 400 complaints per year. In Scotland, a survey published in 2007 revealed that only Edinburgh and Glasgow councils received more than 50 complaints per year; most urban areas received fewer than 25 complaints per year.

A fox cage trap. Many people dislike having foxes in their neighbourhood and want them removed. In urban areas, this often manifests as asking pest controllers to "take it back to the countryside where it belongs". - Credit: Marc Baldwin

While writing this article I attempted a vox pop of some local councils in order to try and find out how many complaints were made to them regarding foxes. The problem, it transpired, was that because councils don’t consider foxes “vermin”, any calls relating to them are forwarded to the appropriate body (The Fox Project, National Fox Welfare Society or, in the case of my local council, the RSPCA) and no records are kept.

The pest control officer at my local council did, however, tell me that complaints about foxes have always been, and continue to be, very rare in Southampton city. Nonetheless, as David Macdonald pointed out in his fascinating article to BBC Wildlife Magazine in October 1985: “It is difficult to calibrate nuisance.” Indeed, what may seem a trivial disturbance to you or me may be a considerable inconvenience to someone else – all of this means that it is very difficult to accurately assess the pest status of the fox in Britain. Of course, measuring a problem creates pressure to do something about it and the presence of uncertainty (such as how many complaints there are, whether foxes are getting bolder, how many foxes there are, etc.) can lead people to think the situation is “out of control” and urgent intervention is required.

In urban areas, complaints of foxes causing nuisance include calling (sometimes at an alarming volume) late at night, setting off security lights, digging up lawns and flowerbeds, raiding bins, killing domestic livestock (especially chickens, ducks, guinea pigs and rabbits), attacking pets (see QA) and stealing fruit and vegetables from gardens. Furthermore, they often leave pungent smelling urine and excrement in gardens and occasionally excavate the corpses of buried pets.

Fox cubs are also well known to trash gardens during their play sessions, carrying off pot plants, chewing pots, chewing polyethylene play tunnels and plant protection tunnels as well as becoming entangled in garden netting. What's more, adult foxes can squeeze through gaps of only 10 sq-cm (4 sq-in) and easily scale a 2m (6ft fence), making it difficult to totally exclude them from your garden (see Deterring Foxes). Foxes are also often implicated in the loss of dog toys and shoes from the garden. Indeed, it seems that some foxes have developed something of a penchant for stealing shoes and, in October 2009, a forestry worker in the German town of Föhren found a collection of 120 shoes at a fox earth in a wood on his beat – including 86 at the earth itself and 32 in a nearby quarry where the foxes had been seen playing.

The great fox re-stock

For centuries the fox has been seen as a pest by man, who has gone to considerable lengths to reduce their numbers. Perversely, however, some authors consider that, were it not for mounted fox hunting the fox would have been eradicated in Britain. Indeed, as early as the late 16th century, royal chronicler Raphael Holinshed wrote to Elizabeth I saying that, were foxes not “preserved for the pleasure of gentlemen”, they would’ve been eradicated many years ago. Robin Page, in his A Fox’s Tale, noted something similar:

In some rural areas foxes still have many enemies, but as long as people hunt they will ensure the preservation of their quarry. Consequently, rather than posing a threat, hunting offers the wild country fox its greatest insurance against excessive persecution.”

There is certainly much evidence to support claims that hunts played a significant role in maintaining or even boosting fox numbers in their parishes. Indeed, some authors consider that the start of live foxes being seen as a positive economic resource in Britain probably stems from the ‘bagmen’ who reportedly sold animals to hunts to boost/maintain numbers for their sport since at least the mid-18th Century, and throughout much of the 19th Century – some authors suggest it started during the 17th Century, or even earlier.

A scene from the 1949 MGM cartoon "Out-Foxed", written by Rich Hogan and directed by Tex Avery. Britain's hunting literature is replete with accounts of foxes being "bagged up" and moved around the country, or brought in from the continent to sustain the hunting. - Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

In his book Town Fox, Country Fox, Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald described how foxes were imported from the European continent to Britain as numbers ran low from over-hunting and disease. Vezey-Fitzgerald suggests that, during the mid-1800s, foxes were being imported and released into the British countryside at a rate of more than one thousand per year. It seems that many of these foxes were arriving from Denmark and being traded through London’s Leadenhall Market, although animals also arrived from other countries (e.g. Austria, Germany, Italy, Sardinia, Scandinavia and even Russia) and were moved within the British Isles; notably from Scotland to England. Foxes arriving from Europe were shipped across on board cattle ships in small cages and sold for the princely sum of 15 shillings (equivalent to about £40 today, according to The National Archive's currency converter) and, according to Martin Wallen, in Fox, some regular customers had rolling orders for these animals.

This trade in bagged foxes was controversial, even at the time, because the European foxes apparently often failed to give a good run. Fox bagging was, however, happening much closer to home, with some poachers digging out foxes and selling them back to the hunts on whose turf the foxes had been taken. Indeed, in his opus, The Red Fox, Huw Lloyd tells how hunts used to pay ‘protection money’ to poachers to guard against such raids on their earths as well as compensating farmers and gamekeepers for any loss of livestock on their beats.

So, hunts have invariably played a role in boosting Britain’s fox population over the centuries and it seems possible that, without the assistance from hunts, foxes may not be as widespread in the British Isles as they are today. I suspect, however, that it is optimistic to suggest that without hunts foxes would have been wiped out from Britain. That doesn’t, however, mean that considerable effort and resource hasn’t been directed at reducing fox numbers in Britain.

Organised attempts at "pest control"

Lloyd suggested that, in Britain, the first organised control of foxes (coupled with the hunting of foxes for their pelts) probably began with the appointment of the royal Fox Hunters of Edward I during the 13th Century. Subsequently, Tudor legislation passed by Henry VIII in 1532 introduced bounty payments for avian vermin control, part of a series of legislation (collectively known as the Tudor Vermin Acts) passed with the goal of protecting the grain crop following a series of poor harvests. The Act, entitled An Acte made and ordeyned to destroy Choughes, Crowes and Rokes (i.e. Jackdaws, Carrion crows and Rooks), set out bounty payments to encourage the killing of corvids. Henry’s Act was renamed in 1566 by his daughter Elizabeth I, who expanded the list of animals considered vermin.

The 1566 Act, entitled An Acte for the preservation of Grayne, offered cash payment for proof (usually in the form of a head) of the destruction of one of a considerable number of bird and mammal species, even though many posed no obvious threat to grain supplies. Bird species on this ‘hit list’ included a diverse range from house sparrows and starlings (even kingfishers), through the corvid species Henry disliked so, to harriers, kites and eagles.

Among the mammals, bounties were offered for foxes, badgers, weasels, polecats, moles and even hedgehogs – the price paid for proof of a dead fox was one shilling, which—according to The National Archives’ website—was the equivalent of earning about £16 (19 EUR or 25 USD) today. Presumably, the inclusion of animals such as foxes was more for preservation of livestock than grain, given that they’re actually more beneficial than damaging to the harvest because they prey heavily on granivorous rodents. Regardless, these vermin payments continued until the early 19th Century (at which point gamekeepers were largely responsible for vermin control on estates) before the Act was repealed in 1863. For a detailed and authoritative exploration of the Tudor Vermin Acts, the reader is directed to Roger Lovegrove’s superb 2007 book Silent Fields.

A fox carrying a rabbit. Opponents of hunting point out that foxes are broadly beneficial to the ecosystem, taking significant number of other species considered pests to agriculture, including granivorous rodents and rabbits. - Credit: Tony McLean

It isn’t known how many people were involved with killing foxes under the 1566 Act, but Lovegrove’s examination of parish records suggests that there was massive variation in culling effort across Britain, with most effort being directed in the ‘ancient countryside’ of the southwest of England, the Marches, Kent and the uplands of Wales and northern Scotland. The Tudor Vermin Acts were aimed at a broad reduction (even eradication) of pest species, of which foxes were one, but some areas saw the formation of groups dedicated to the removal of foxes.

Fox destruction societies were established, largely in areas where there were no mounted hunts (e.g. Wales and Northern England), during the Second World War. Lloyd notes that most societies were setup between 1941 and 1944, initially with funding from the government (I believe, although Lloyd doesn’t say, under the Assisted Fox Destruction Scheme); government support was withdrawn in August 1979. Approved societies offered a bounty payment of £1 per adult fox and 50p per cub (half the money coming from the government, pre-1979), although Lloyd mentions that in the latter years of the societies, as much as £2.50 could be paid for vixens.

When Lloyd compiled his opus during the mid-1970s there were 221 societies operating in the UK, with 6,000-or-so bounties being claimed each year between 1968 and 1972 in Wales and 11,000 claimed in Northern Ireland during 1969. In his An Irish Beast Book, James Fairley notes that by the time the bounty scheme in Northern Ireland was ended in 1977, 290,000 bounties had been paid. The Master of Hunts Association tells me that they don’t know of any destruction societies still in operation within the UK.

Whether such bounty schemes had any impact on fox numbers is unclear, although the available evidence suggests not. Fairley comments that the 290 thousand bounties paid in Northern Ireland didn't yield any results and he goes so far as to say:

The Northern Ireland scheme, like almost every other bounty programme throughout the world, was a failure.

Council "vermin" control

Currently, in the UK, it is the responsibility of local councils to decide which species are considered vermin. To the best of my knowledge, no council currently considers the fox vermin and, as such there is no requirement for them to take action to reduce fox numbers (as there is for, say, rats and mice). Indeed, there is no ‘official’ vermin list. My local council’s pest control officer told me that there is no formal information from DEFRA to say which species are considered vermin and must thus be controlled. Instead, the councils populate a list based on current legislation—e.g. Pest Act of 1954, Prevention of Damage by Pests Act of 1949, etc.—and the ADAS Pest Manual (now The British Pest Management Manual), published by the British Pest Control Association. The result is that there may be variation from council to council with regards to the pest species they control.

Contrary to popular misconception, local councils are under no obligation to undertake fox control. Historically, councils that previously did cull foxes stopped the practice because it was expensive and had no discernible impact on fox numbers. - Credit: Peter Trimming

My local council, and many around the country, do not provide any fox control. That said, following a series of high profile incidents where foxes were alleged to have bitten people, in 2010 Sir George Young (Leader of the Commons) said that the government would consider whether the law should be changed to force councils to control urban foxes.

Methods of fox control in Britain

In his 2000 summary on fox biology and control in the countryside, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) biologist Jonathan Reynolds described how the persecution of foxes waned during the early 19th Century as the Industrial revolution saw the movement of people into towns and the development of wire netting to protect livestock. In addition, two World Wars resulted in many gamekeepers being called into active service, leaving an estimated 10% behind. Further disruption to the control of foxes came as the 20th Century progressed and many of the previously common methods of killing foxes were outlawed. Reynolds noted that many poisons were outlawed in 1911, while gin traps were banned in England in 1954 (although they remained legal in Scotland until 1973), self-locking snares became illegal in 1981 and gassing earths with cyanide effectively became illegal with the introduction of the Control of Pesticides Act (1986).

In essence, farmers and gamekeepers can now use only free-running snares (the use of which is strictly regulated) or they can lamp at night with a suitable calibre weapon: the most effective and humane method of culling foxes is probably with a lamp (to pick out the eye-shine and body shape of the fox) and a heavy calibre rifle—i.e. a .243 or .222 centre fire—and the employment of a long-dog to recover any wounded animals. Shotguns could also be used, provided a sufficiently heavy load is used (i.e. not birdshot), but an air rifle would be unacceptable.

Shooting is probably the most common method of fox control in Britain. Claims about its humaneness are often made, suggesting wounded foxes "slink away to die from gangrene", but are not supported by the evidence. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Many arguments have been had about the practice of shooting foxes and the potential for too many wounded animals to escape and die an unpleasant death (a debate raged between Bristol University biologists and a team at a Welsh wildlife consultancy in the journal Animal Welfare between 2005 and 2006). There are no statistics on how often, if ever, this happens although some studies suggest that ‘winged’ animals heal quickly and resume normal activities. Assuming, however, that the shooting is undertaken by a competent person, it is difficult to see how shooting is any less humane than the alternatives. The problem, however, is that shooting can be very labour intensive because the pressure needs to be maintained if the population is to remain suppressed.

Foxes are, as a species, very resistant to culling because vacant territories (generated by the shooting of the resident animal) are rapidly filled by dispersing animals. The result is that fox control is a continuous activity, carried out throughout the year on many game estates (farmers may only deem it worth the effort and expense to cull foxes at particular times of the year – lambing time, for example). Moreover, in heavily managed populations, foxes can become very secretive, making it more difficult to find them in the first place - the law of diminishing returns. In addition, firearm restrictions make it highly impractical (arguably illegal) to shoot foxes in urban areas as part of any reasonable-scale control programme.

There are exceptions, of course, and a home owner can pay a pest controller to shoot a fox visiting their garden, although such actions tend to have only short-lived results. Culling can be an option to remove particularly problematic animals (these crop up from time-to-time) but, more generally, as former Bristol University biologist Pirian White and his colleagues say in their 2000 paper to the Lord Burns’ Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs:

“… there is no clear relationship between fox abundance and levels of damage, and it is not clear whether reducing fox abundance necessarily reduces level of damages (except if they can be eliminated entirely).”

The Ross Harriers hunt in Herefordshire. Hunting with hounds remains a popular occupation in Britain in spite of the Hunting Act of 2004. This form of hunting has long been seen as a means of fox control, despite a history of hunts boosting fox numbers and a lack of evidence that it has any discernible impact on the fox population. - Credit: Bristol Hunt Saboteurs

That said, the GWCT biologists have shown local and seasonal culling of foxes can substantially reduce fox predation on game and livestock, even though the impact on the fox population is only local and temporary. Moreover, many farmers and keepers consider that culling is worth the effort and, as part of a survey of fox control in three areas of England and Wales, GWCT biologists Matt Heydon and Jonathan Reynolds found that just over 70% of landowners believed that culling contributed to the suppression of fox numbers throughout their region. Interestingly, the GWCT study also revealed that culling seemed to have a beneficial impact on the fox population; the foxes appearing generally healthier and there were fewer barren vixens in the population. This is presumably a response to a generally less competitive environment.

Elsewhere, in 2000, Francesco Frati, Sandro Lovari and Günther Hartl presented evidence to suggest that culling may increase the genetic variability in the fox population. Frati and his colleagues looked at a series of enzymes and mtDNA sequences from six hunted and three non-hunted fox populations in Central Europe and the Mediterranean area, finding that genetic variability was almost absent in the un-hunted populations (i.e. suggesting lots of inbreeding). This suggests that, in some cases, culling may act as a proxy for predation, enhancing the genetic ‘robustness’ of the population by permitting the introduction of new genes (in the form of animals dispersing into the area). The authors speculate that this increased population viability may be one reason why widespread culling programmes (such as those aimed at controlling rabies) have failed to eradicate foxes.

Alternatives to lethal control

Where possible, it makes more sense to try and exclude foxes from the area, rather than culling them. There are various methods that may achieve this (see Fox Deterrence), although results can vary and may require considerable persistence. Chemical repellents work in many cases, although only those legislated by the Control of Pesticides Regulations (1986) can legally be used in Britain, so the once popular Renardine repellent is now illegal.

A Maremma sheepdog on duty in Italy. - Credit: MGerety / WikiMedia Commons

There have also been some intriguingly novel fox deterrence attempts. Llamas are, I’m told, very efficient at keeping foxes away from livestock, as are certain breeds of dog. Indeed, at the start of this century, foxes and stray dogs found their way on to Middle Island, a small island just offshore from south-western Victoria in Australia, and decimated the colony of little penguins (Eudyptula mino) that breed there. It seems that the current had slowly been depositing sand in the channel and this eventually built up to such a level that it provided a barely submerged walkway at low tide.

The island was once home to about 800 penguins, but a few years after the foxes reached the island only four birds remained - one incident saw 360 birds killed in a single night during 2005. In 2005, researchers introduced two Maremma dogs (a large breed originally bred to protect sheep from wolves and now used elsewhere in Australia for guarding poultry from foxes) on to the island to guard the penguins and since then there hasn’t been a single fox sighting on the island. As of 2016, the population of little penguins on Middle Island has recovered to about 130 birds.

A similarly novel solution to the problem of fox predation was reported in August 2011, when The Telegraph carried a story about the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset playing Radio 4 at full volume at the periphery of the swannery to keep foxes away – a tip given to them by a farmer in Devon who apparently uses it to keep his chickens safe at night. The theory is that the sound of human voices is sufficient to keep wary foxes away.

Further afield: The fox as a pest in Australia

Outside of Britain, many countries engage in fox hunting for control, sporting or economic (i.e. trapping for fur) purposes. Australia, in particular, has gone to considerable effort and expense in a bid to eradicate Red foxes from the country. Since foxes were introduced to Melbourne in 1845 by home-sick expatriates, they have thrived and now occur throughout mainland Australia, excluding northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. (In a paper to the journal Mammal Review during 2010, a team of Australian-based biologists note that foxes are currently present on three-quarters of the Australian continent, ranging over almost six million sq-km.) The impact of the introduction of the fox to ecosystems in which it had not evolved soon became apparent and it was given official pest status in Victoria during 1894, almost 50 years after the first introduction.

Foxes introduced to Australia pose a significant threat to many native small to medium-sized mammals, such as potoroos (Potorous platyops). - Credit: Marc Baldwin

In 2004 authorities estimated that foxes cost the Australian agricultural industry in excess of 227 million AUD (£153 million or 183 million EUR) annually and the spread of foxes across southern Australia has coincided with declines in the distribution of several native medium-sized ground-dwelling mammals, including a group of rat-kangaroos called bettongs, the bilby (Macrotis lagotis), and a wallaby species (see Interaction with Species). In recent years Australia has launched a widespread campaign to eradicate, or at least reduce the number of this species, but culling efforts have typically proven ineffective; foxes can withstand high levels of mortality (see Fox control QA). The control program is also expensive, costing at least an estimated 16 million AUD per year.

Research on potential poisons has also been conducted in Australia and a couple, including para-aminopropiophenone (PAPP for short), have been shown to be effective against foxes. Lethal baiting is generally considered to be a highly effective method of fox control, killing 95% or more of the target species, but the use of poison baits is controversial and can be potentially dangerous to non-target species.

By the start of the 21st Century, attention had turned to fertility control as a means of reducing the Australian fox population. Work was carried out to assess whether a virus that made foxes sterile could be used, but the project had been largely abandoned by the end of the 2000s owing not only to practical issues of infecting the foxes, but also that this virus would represent a potentially devastating exotic disease for the island’s native possums. Other studies have found that a potent dopamine antagonist called Cabergoline can be added to baits and fed to foxes to reduce their reproductive success in the wild; the chemical causes abortions and inhibits prolactin production (so the vixen cannot lactate).

However sterilisation is achieved, a study by a team at Australia’s Vertebrate Pest Research Unit, published during 2002, reported that there were no significant differences in the survival or dispersal of sterile vixens when compared to fertile ones (i.e. they maintained similar sized territories), suggesting sterilisation is a potentially suitable means of population control for this species. That said, the costs involved as well as the practical difficulties of relying on baits (which have to be found and eaten by your target animal) make any such operations difficult. Consequently, the main form of fox control in Australia is shooting by landowners and hunters, trapping, or poisoning with sodium monofluoroacetate (often known by its catalogue number, 1080).

A sign used in Australia to alert people to 1080 poison bait having been laid on the property, targeting foxes and feral cats. - Credit: Peter West / Invasive Animals CRC

Shooting is labour intensive and often difficult to control fox populations by (as losses are rapidly replaced by dispersing animals). The problem with the latter two methods is their generally unspecific nature – the potential is there for them to kill animals other than foxes, particularly given that foxes rapidly become bait and trap ‘shy’. The 1080 poison, however, is produced by a native plant (pea bushes) and many native species have evolved a higher resistance to the toxin than foxes; this makes it less likely the baits will kill non-invasive species.

More recently, biological control has come in the form of the dingo, whose reintroduction seems to be causing a reduction in fox numbers as they’re displaced by the larger native canid (see QA). Some more radical suggestions have also been proposed. Katherine Moseby and her colleagues, in a paper to the journal Evolutionary Applications in 2016, suggested that naïve prey species could be exposed to alien predators such as foxes in carefully controlled experiments and that this might ‘force’ them to recognise these animals as a threat.

Moseby and her colleagues are candid in their acceptance that some of the animals to be reintroduced will be killed by the predators, but point out that crucially some will survive and this will drive natural selection towards a species better able to coexist with exotic predators. Learning is, they argue, improved because the stimuli are real; the exposed population is wild and cultural transmission can occur during all life stages. Time will tell how Australia gets to grips with its fox problem.