Human-kind has a long history with the Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Some regard it as nothing more than chicken-stealing vermin to be exterminated, while others see it as a beautiful and fascinating addition to Britain's native fauna; one of the few mammals seeming to thrive in an increasingly developed and polluted world. Love them or hate them, foxes have an important role in our terrestrial ecosystems, some of which we've only recently begun to understand. Standing defiant in the face of almost boundless human persecution, the Red fox's tumultuous history with mankind seems set to continue for generations to come.
That which follows is a detailed overview of Red fox evolution, taxonomy, biology, ecology and history. Certain aspects of the fox's natural history that warrant for detailed discussion have been split from the main overview and placed into their own Q/A.
The Red fox at a glance
Size: 60 – 90cm (2ft – 3 ft) head and body length; can reach 1.65m (5.4 ft) including tail. In Britain, average weight of adult male is around 6.5kg (14 lbs), while adult females are approx. 5.5kg (12 lbs). The global range for adults is 3 – 16kg (6.6 – 35lbs). The largest confirmed specimen was a dog fox shot on a farm near Aberdeen, Scotland, during 2012, weighing 17.2kg (38 lb. 1 oz.) and measuring 145cm (4 ft. 9 in.). Larger animals (20kg / 41 lbs or more) have been reported, but remain unverified.
Colour: Highly variable; can range from yellow-red to black (‘silver’). Most common characteristic is white chin and underside with white tip to the tail and amber eyes. Four main colour phases (Red, White, Silver and Cross), which are genetically inherited.
Distribution: UK and most of Europe, North Africa, North America, Canada as far north as some arctic islands, and parts of Asia. Also found throughout China, northern India and Australia (introduced for hunting).
Longevity: Oldest (captive) animal almost 24 years. Typically, foxes live for only 2 years (esp. in urban environment), although more generally a range of 2 to 8 years can be expected. Upper limit in wild is generally 6 or 8 years, although some have been known to reach their mid-teens.
Sexing: Very little sexual dimorphism (i.e. sexes look very similar). Males (dogs), on average larger than females (vixens), with broader heads and longer, narrower snouts than females as they age. During the breeding season the cream-coloured scrotum of the male is descended, helping with sexing, while females with young (cubs or pups) will often have bald stomachs and enlarged teats during the summer.
Activity: Predominantly crepuscular and nocturnal (active at dusk, night and dawn); can be seen diurnally (daytime) lying in thick vegetation or patrolling territories – diurnal activity may be more common in urban environments, and during cub-rearing months in more rural spots.
Dens: Use dens (or “earths”) predominantly during cub-rearing months, although may be used outside this period particularly in bad weather. May lie up in vegetation or in sunny spots (such as on shed roofs or in trees). Natal den sought during February. Several dens may exist per territory.
Territory: Substantial variation by habitat (resource-based). Rural foxes commonly have territories between 200 and 600 ha. (500 – 1,500 acres), extending to 4,000 ha (10,000 ac.) in poor Scottish Highlands. Urban foxes tend to forage over smaller areas; less than 60 ha (150 ac. or one-quarter sq-mi.). Territories often composed of two areas; larger (home range) area containing a smaller (core area) territory. Home ranges may overlap with neighbours; core areas don’t and are violently defended against interlopers.
Diet: Extremely varied; highly opportunitistic predators. Mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, fish, amphibians, fruit, vegetables, grass and human rubbish.
Reproduction: Breeding season late December to February. Cubs (ave. 4 to 6) born March to late April (peak mid-March). Cubs presented with solid food from 3 wks old and emerge from den in early May (ca. 6 wks old). Cubs weaned by about 8 wks old. Independent by 3 to 5 months; family unit often breaks down from September onwards, with males more prone to dispersal than females.
Behaviour and Sociality: Normally solitary (or in pairs); can occur in family groups where resources allow (e.g. urban areas). When in groups, family members may help care for subsequent litters (guard, feed and play with cubs), but subordinates rarely breed. Have been associated with attacks on pets/livestock and damage to gardens. Can be excluded from pet/livestock enclosures with effort, but very difficult to exclude from garden completely. Calling rare, but not unheard of, outside of mating season. Communicate with scent and body language at close range and with calling over longer distances. Tendency to surplus kill and cache left-over frequently leads to false interpretation that foxes kill for ‘sport’.
Threats: Hunted for sport throughout much of range, although this seems to have little impact on overall numbers. Many killed by cars in towns and cities. Mange has decreased numbers recently. Predators of adults in most of UK non-existent (potentially golden eagles in Scotland), although cubs may fall victim to various predators (esp. golden eagles, eagle owls, other carnivorans); elsewhere predators include wolves, coyotes and lynx.
A Fox’s Tale: The secret life of the fox - by Robin Page
Hodder and Stoughton -- 1986 -- ISBN: 978-0340382561
A New Forest Fox Family - by Thelma Clarke
Barny Books -- 2000 -- ISBN: 978-0948204463
Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - by Multiple Contributors
Pelagic Publishing -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-1784272043
Britain’s Mammals 2018: The Mammal Society’s Guide to their Population & Conservation Status - by Multiple Contributors
The Mammal Society -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-0993567339
British Wildlife: Foxes - by Sally Morgan
Franklin Watts -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-0749679101
British Wildlife: Foxes - by Sally Morgan
Franklin Watts -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-0749679101
Collins Field Guide: Mammals of Britain and Europe - by David MacDonald and Priscilla Barrett
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-0002197793
Country Foxes - by Hugh Kolb
Whittet Books -- 1996 -- ISBN: 978-1873580295
Dogs: Their fossil relatives and evolutionary history - by Xiaoming Wang and Richard Tedford
Columbia University Press -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-0231135290
Fox - by Martin Wallen
Reaktion Books -- 2006 -- ISBN: 978-1861892973
Foxes (Mammal Society Series) - by Steve Harris
Anthony Nelson Ltd. -- 1984 -- ISBN: 978-0904614121
Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain - by Lucy Jones
Elliott & Thompson -- 2016 -- ISBN: 978-1783961498
Foxwatching: In the shadow of the fox - by Martin Hemmington
Whittet Books -- 1997 -- ISBN: 978-1873580318
Free Spirit: A brush with a fox - by Michael Chambers
Methuen London -- 1990 -- ISBN: 978-0413629807
Highland Deer Forest - by Lea MacNally
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. -- 1970 -- ISBN: 978-0330234665
How to Spot a Fox - by J. David Henry
Chapters Publishing Ltd. -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-1881527176
Just About Me - by Mike Towler
Vulpine Publishing -- 2006 -- ISBN: N/A
Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook, 4th Edition - by Stephen Harris and Derek Yalden (eds)
The Mammal Society -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-0906282656
The natural history "bible" covering all British mammals with detailed coverage of their biology, behaviour, ecology and taxonomy written by experts in the field and referenced to the primary literature.
Mind the Gap: Postglacial colonization of Ireland - by John L. Davenport, David P. Sleeman & Peter C. Woodman (eds)
Irish Naturalists' Journal -- 2008
My Friends the Foxes - by Mike Towler
Vulpine Publishing -- 2015 -- ISBN: N/A
My Life With Foxes - by Eric Ashby
Robert Hale Books -- 2000 -- ISBN: 978-0709065616
Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131
Red Fox: The Catlike Canine - by J. David Henry
Smithsonian Institution Press -- 1996 -- ISBN: 978-1560986355
Running with the Fox - by David MacDonald
UnwinHyman -- 1987 -- ISBN: 978-0816018864
Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife - by Roger Lovegrove
Oxford Univesrity Press -- 2007 -- ISBN: 978-0199548156
Simon King’s Wildguide - by Simon King
BBC Books -- 1994 -- ISBN: 978-0563364962
The British Mammal Guide - by Steve Evans & Paul Wetton
Isabelline Films -- 2015 -- ISBN: N/A
The Complete Fox - by Les Stocker
Chatto and Windus, Ltd. -- 1994 -- ISBN: 978-0701137762
The Darkness is Light Enough: The field journal of a night naturalist - by Chris Ferris
Sphere Books Ltd. -- 1986 -- ISBN: 978-0718126902
The Encyclopaedia of Mammals - by David MacDonald (ed.)
Brown Reference Group -- 2006 -- ISBN: 978-0199206087
The Hidden World of the Fox - by Adele Brand
William Collins -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-0008327286
The Mammals of the Palaearctic Region: A Taxonomic Review - by Gordon Corbet
Cornell University Press -- 1978 -- ISBN: 978-0801411717
The Nature of Foxes: Hunters of the shadows - by Rebecca Gambo
Greystone Books -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-1550541847
The Wildlife Trust’s Handbook of Garden Wildlife - by Nicholas Hammond
Bloombury -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1472915863
Town Fox, Country Fox - by Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald
The Country Book Club -- 1968 -- ISBN: 978-0552092111
UK Mammals: Species Status & Population Trends - by The Tracking Mammals Partnership
JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
Unearthing the Urban Fox - by Trevor Williams and Andrew Wilson
The Fox Project -- 2011 -- ISBN: 978-0956961402
Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict, & Conservation - by Stanley Gehrt, Seth Riley & Brian Cypher
John Hopkins University Press -- 2010 -- ISBN: 978-0801893896
Urban Foxes - by Stephen Harris & Phil Baker
Whittet Books -- 2001 -- ISBN: 978-1873580516
Urban Mammals: A Concise Guide - by David Wembridge
Whittet Books -- 2012 -- ISBN: 978-1873580851
Urban Wildlife - by Peter Shirley
Whittet Books -- 1996 -- ISBN: 978-1873580233
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271
Wild Fox: A complete study of the Red fox - by Roger Burrows
David and Charles Publishers -- 1968 -- ISBN: 978-0330238007
Note: Burrows provides some interesting observations in this book, but frequently arrives at spurious conclusions. As such, this book should be interpreted with caution.
- Adele Brand - A Walk with Wildlife
- Animal Diversity Web – Red Fox
- Black Foxes UK
- Canid Specialist Group
- Derbyshire Fox Rescue
- Dr P’s Dog Training
- English Country Garden
- Everything is Permuted
- Fox Watch Ireland
- Kukekova Lab: Fox Domestication
- Lakeland Hunting Memories
- Living with Urban Foxes
- National Fox Welfare Society (NFWS)
- The Fox Project
- The Fox Website
- Vulpes World