Are foxes and rabbits native to Britain?


Yes and no. Rabbits were introduced by the Normans and “bagged foxes” were frequently imported when numbers ran low during the 18th and 19th centuries, although we have no data to suggest this was common in Norman times. The Red fox, as a species, is considered native in Britain, having been present since at least 12,800 BP, although the current stock appears to be a mixture of native and introduced bloodlines.

The Details

Several years ago, on the BBC's now-closed Hunting TalkingPoint site, one participant said: “The fox is not 'our [Britain's] natural wildlife', it was introduced from France for the sport of the Normans and to help keep down the rabbits they had previously introduced here (another non-native species) and which had got out of control”. Conventionally, species regarded as native or indigenous to a country are those that arrived since the last ice age without human assistance. Britain’s last ice age ended some 15,000 years ago and pre-glacial Britain had both rabbits and foxes. As with many apparently off-the-cuff proclamations about foxes, the one given on the TalkingPoint site has elements of truth buried in an otherwise rather inaccurate statement.

The return of the fox

The Red fox (Vulpes vulpes), a species present in post-glacial Britain. - Credit: Dave Pressland

The first archaeological evidence for the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) in Britain comes from the Wolstonian Glacial sediments in Warwickshire, a county in the midlands just south-east of Birmingham. The Wolstonian Glaciation started about 330,000 years ago and ended some 135,000 years before the present day (BP). The same sediments also contain the first evidence for the Eurasian badger (Meles meles) in Britain. During the Wolstonian, the landscape appears to have been mainly grasses and sedges with some dispersed woodland; a “steppe” environment as it is known to ecologists.

Following the retreat of ice some 15,000 years ago, many of the larger mammal species began to extend their range northwards, re-appearing and/or recolonising Britain. Among these were wolves (Canis lupis), brown bears (Ursus arctos), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and, contrary to popular misconception, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). We initially thought mammoths didn’t return to Britain after the maximum of the last glaciation; but remains of four specimens, an adult and three juveniles, found in a kettle-hole (a pit full of sticky grey sandy clay) in Shropshire, have been radiocarbon-dated to 12,800 BP.

Derek Yalden was in no doubt that foxes soon made their way back after the ice retreated. In his fascinating book, The History of British Mammals, the late mammologist described how post-glacial remains of the red fox have been found at several sites around Britain and suggests that this species re-appeared naturally around 10,000 years ago, as the ice of the Devensian Glaciation retreated. Perhaps the best examples of post-glacial fox remains in the UK were found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, where they were found together with the remains of the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), and date to the mild climate of the Late Glacial interstadial, about 11,000 BP. Indeed, fossil data from elsewhere in Europe imply that the ice forced foxes into the warmer southern regions of Europe (e.g. Iberia, Italy, southern France, etc.) for only a (geologically) brief period, after which they quickly returned to central Europe and Britain; at the time, the UK was connected to the European continent. The flooding of the Doggerland ‘bridge’ around 6,500 years ago isolated Britain’s foxes from those in Europe, putting an end to any natural mixing of the populations.

Incidentally, even if we were to approach the question from a purely literary perspective, foxes are mentioned in the Catholic texts of Anglo-Saxon scholars Bede and Alcuin, both of which pre-date the arrival of the Normans. I’m told that Alcuin actually admonished boys for spending their time digging foxes out of holes, rather than praying!

Hopping back to Britain

The question of when rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) first reappeared in Britain is somewhat more complicated. Rabbit remains have been found dating back to the warm climate of the Cromerian Interglacial (750,000 to 350,000 BP), suggesting rabbits were found in Britain before the ice sheets advanced. It seems that they didn’t, however, make their own way back to Britain after the ice retreated. Rather, it appears that Roman settlers may have been the first to bring rabbits back to Britain.

In 2005, archaeologists excavating a Roman settlement at Lynford in Norfolk found the remains of a 2,000 year old rabbit dinner, which may represent the earliest evidence of rabbits in post-glacial Britain. Prior to this discovery, we thought Britain was rabbit-free until the Normans re-introduced them during the 12th Century, probably to provide food and fur. Unfortunately, we can’t say from this single rabbit whether the Romans established colonies, or if this was just the remains of a salted rabbit carcass the Romans brought with them. All these remains tell us is that rabbit introductions to Britain might have started with the Romans.

A European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Norman settlers subsequently brought rabbits to Britain with them and they are widely considered to be the origin of our current rabbit population. The precise date and source of the Norman introductions remain unclear, although the earliest definite mention of a rabbit warren appears to be from the Isles of Scilly in 1176. Rabbits originate from the western Mediterranean and the Norman Kingdom in Sicily may have provided a source of rabbits for Britain. Thus, although rabbits are well known from pre-glacial Britain, the current evidence suggests they failed to become established until Norman settlers brought them over some 900 years ago – this means that they cannot be considered indigenous to Britain.

Topping up

So, as a species, the red fox is native to Britain; but this is not to say that some of Britain’s foxes do not have a continental ancestry. Indeed, foxes have been introduced to Britain many times over the years, many having been sourced from continental Europe. I confess that I am unaware of any evidence to suggest that the Normans brought foxes with them, but we know of many cases where foxes were shipped over from Europe during the nineteenth century.

At the turn of the seventeenth century Britain saw a significant shift in attitudes towards land management. Up until this point, Britain was largely a landscape of open fields and woodlands, much of which were considered either common land and broadly divided between interested parties to manage (graze or cultivate) as they saw fit, or waste land that wasn’t owned by anyone and farmed by peasants. Despite a few piecemeal enclosures taking place since about the twelfth century, 1604 saw the first of a swathe of more than 5,000 “inclosure acts” passed into British law that saw fences built and hedges laid to enclose land and create legal property rights. This allowed landowners to seek better financial returns by diversifying and employing more efficient farming techniques, as well as charging higher rent for the people working the land.

In essence, as large fields were split into smaller ones, the drainage was improved and the land more carefully managed, which saw its value increase. The start of the nineteenth century saw a tidying up of the existing Acts and in the middle of the century the General Inclosure Act was passed, allowing Inclosure Commissioners to enclose land without going through parliament, which made the whole process cheaper and quicker.

An 18th century hunting scene by John Frederick. The Inclosure Acts, a mange epidemic and an increase in game-keeping during the 17th and 18th centuries saw fox numbers decline sharply, forcing hunts to import some from the continent. - Credit: Georges Jansoone

While the Inclosure Acts gathered momentum, so too did an interest in keeping gamebirds, such that Britain’s woodlands rapidly filled with pheasant pens and landowners demanding larger and larger ‘bags’ each year. The result was that foxes were ruthlessly persecuted by gamekeepers and farmers, the latter of whom had become less interested in preserving foxes having seen increasing damage from hunts as a result of a change in the sport that came from a combination of selective breeding of hounds and the enclosing of land (see Fox Hunting & the Hunting Act). The rise of pheasant keeping, coupled with the change in hunting practices, a mange epidemic and demand from London furriers for pelts around Christmastime resulted in a serious shortage of foxes in Britain during the late 1700s and 1800s. Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to make some money and a brisk trade in foxes soon became established.

For those interested in knowing more, I thoroughly recommend Edward Bovill’s 1959 book The England of Nimrod and Surtees, 1815-1854, in which he gives a very detailed and highly readable account of the changing face of Britain’s countryside and the response of both the hunts and the foxes. Bovill describes how several hunt masters had either to move their operations elsewhere in the country or resign their masterships altogether because there were so few foxes. In a bid to try and boost numbers, many landowners and hunt masters would purchase foxes from markets and auctioneers in London (Leadenhall and Tattersall’s, in particular) and Bovill explains:

There were several dealers in London who carried on a thriving trade in French, German, Dutch, Scotch, and, unfortunately, the English breeds, at prices ranging from twelve and six to fifteen shillings a head.”

An illustration by an unknown artist of George Templer, Devonshire landowner and founder of the South Devon hunt in 1810. Templer reportedly hunted "bagged" foxes, including some that were recaptured and re-hunted on subsequent occasions. Illustration published in "The South Devon Hunt" by Edward Tozer (1916). - Credit: Edward F. Tozer

Back in the mid-1800s, 15 shillings was the equivalent of about £35 (about 40 US dollars or Euros) today. Bovill’s mention of ‘unfortunately the English breeds’ is reference to a similarly thriving trade in organised gangs stealing foxes one part of the country to sell to hunts in another, with some landowners forced to pay blackmail to prevent their foxes being targeted. Warwickshire Hunt master Edward Corbet, for example, was apparently forced to pay £40 per year to keep the poachers out of his coverts. Now, £40 may not sound like much, but according to The National Archives website, in the mid-1800s that was the equivalent of about £2,300 today. It got to the point, Bovill wrote, that:

There was not a fox in the country that was not worth a few shillings to anyone who could catch it.

Poaching was further bolstered by the demand for English foxes, as many hunts considered foxes from the continent, and particularly France, to be less stout and provide poorer sport. More generally, foxes were hand-fed by the ‘bagmen’ who caught and sold them and were often mistreated, which meant they were in poor condition upon release and this probably contributed to their “poor run”. As a consequence, hunts generally didn’t like hunting ‘bagged’ foxes, and only did so out of necessity. Owing to the cost of the animals, however, some hunts tried to re-use the foxes they released. Bovill tells of George Templer of the South Devon Hunt who kept up to 20 bagmen on hand during times when foxes were in chronically short supply. So financially minded was Templer that his intention was always for one of his hunt workers to ride ahead of the pack and pick the fox up by its brush before the hounds caught up. Templer apparently once claimed that one of his foxes, the ‘Bold Dragon’, was released and recovered no fewer than 36 times. In a bid to avoid paying bagmen, some hunts sent staff to the continent with sacks and shovels to bring back foxes, but this was generally less efficient than hoped.

We don’t know exactly how many foxes were brought in from abroad, or translocated around the country by fox poaching gangs. We do, however, have reports suggesting some releases were considerable. Writing in Silk and Scarlet in 1859, for example, Henry Dixon explained:

The importation of foxes has increased to a very great extent, and it is said that in one year about a thousand were in Leadenhall market. The supply comes principally from Holland. It does not do to enquire where all of them come from, but it is certain that Essex is fearfully stripped, and Norfolk as well. A great many have come from Scotland, and Ireland has of late become rather an importing than an exporting country.

Dixon recalls that a batch of 50 foxes, a mixture of dogs and vixens from Holland, France, Germany and Scotland, was the largest single order handled by well-known Leadenhall dealer Philip Castang; all the foxes were boxed up and coached out to a squire in the ‘southern countries’. Similarly, Bovill notes that a Mr Drax of the Charborough Hunt in Dorset turned out as many as a hundred foxes each season between 1833 and 1853.

A recent analysis suggests that these imports didn’t have a significant impact on the genetic structure of Britain’s fox population. In their 2015 paper to the journal Mammal Research, Food and Environmental Research Agency biologist Helen Atterby and her colleagues presented their genetic analysis of 501 foxes collected from around the UK and from two populations in France.

Before the time of archaeologists, animals had to find other ways to establish who were indigenous and who weren't. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Their data show that there’s generally very little structuring in the British fox population, suggesting foxes move around and breed freely. Using a couple of genetic modelling techniques, they did find support for four broad groups, including foxes from Sussex and Kent clustering with those in Calais in northern France. This provides genetic support for the reports by early authors such as Dixon and Bovill that foxes were introduced to Britain from the continent, with France being a prominent sourcing site. Atterby and her coworkers suggest that, as the foxes were imported largely to be hunted, they may not have survived to breed and this may explain why continental genotypes aren’t more widespread in Britain today.

In conclusion…

Britain has a colourful history of fox imports from the continent, largely for the purposes of providing sport for landowners. There is no evidence, however, that foxes have been introduced to Britain to control rabbits and, although it cannot be ruled out that the Normans brought foxes and rabbits with them, the available evidence suggests that fox introductions occurred primarily from the late eighteenth century onwards, some 600 years after Britain’s Norman era ended. Foxes were present in Britain before the last ice age and seem to have recolonised on their own about 10,000 years ago – well before even the Romans set foot on our shores.