Are urban foxes unique to Britain?


Foxes are found in cities throughout Europe and North America, although their social structure may vary compared to Britain. Colonisation of European cities appears to have begun well before Britons had vulpine neighbours, while it is a much more recent phenomenon in American towns and cities. The relatively lower incidence of American urban foxes may reflect urban coyote abundance.

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No, although this was once thought to be the case and in his opus on Red fox natural history, Huw Gwyn Lloyd wrote that: “In Europe the urban fox is almost unique to Britain”. Nonetheless, colonisation of many cities outside of the UK seems to have been more recent and somewhat disjointed when compared to Britain. A recent review of the hunting literature and newspaper archives by Timo Vuorisalo at the University of Turtu and colleagues produced sightings of foxes in urban areas of Finland dating back to at least 1890, with one animal denning in the loft of an elementary school in south-east Finland in 1899. I suspect Finland was not unique in this respect, but that many fox sightings went unrecorded.

Within the past three decades, possibly in response to a successful anti-rabies vaccination campaign, urban foxes have colonised several European cities, including Paris (France), Rome (Italy), Stockholm (Sweden), Oslo (Norway), Berlin and Stuttgart (Germany), Zurich and Geneva (Switzerland), and both Copenhagen and Aarhus (Denmark). Colonisation has progressed rapidly. In Switzerland, for example, foxes were first observed to be breeding in some cities during the early 1980s and by 2004 all thirty cities with populations of more than twenty thousand people had been colonised. In 2002 it was estimated that Zurich had more than ten adult foxes per square-kilometre, which is a density higher than any recorded in the Swiss countryside.

Foxes are now a common site in many towns and cities. - Credit: Anne Whitehead

Outside of Europe, urban foxes are also found in the U.S.A (including Los Angeles, New York and Washington), Australia (Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney), Canada (Toronto) and Japan (Hokkaido and Sapporo). Many of these cities appear to have been colonised within the last twenty years, the exception being Australia. Colonisation of some Australian cities began around the same time as in British cities, with records of foxes in Melbourne, for example, dating back to the 1930s. In North America, little is known about foxes in urban areas. Most of the research has been carried out by David Drake and his team at the University Wisconsin-Madison and they have suggested that there are probably red foxes in most, if not all, North American cities, although data are lacking. Tracking studies by the researchers suggest that coyotes, a significant predator of and competitor with foxes, concentrate their activity in green areas of the city (parks, reserves, etc.), while foxes are found more frequently in the developed areas and they're trying to establish if this represents cause and effect.

It should also be mentioned that, although still referred to as ‘urban foxes’, populations living in back gardens and city centres are comparatively rare outside of the UK. In Rome, for example, Bruno Cignini and Francesco Riga at Italy’s National Wildlife Institute found that foxes were generally found only in city districts with a high percentage of green space. Similarly, in Toronto, Christine Adkins and Philip Stott found that, even though foxes were tracked in the settlements, they spent most of their time in the extensive areas of natural vegetation in the ravine, or in other well-vegetated patches; they found no evidence that the animals were scavenging human refuse.

Few cities outside of Britain have documented the colonisation and spread of foxes, or the public attitudes to these vulpine residents. Indeed, there is nowhere in the world where urban fox populations have been studied for longer or in greater detail. Switzerland and Denmark are probably a close second, however, and the colonisation of cities in Denmark has been particularly well documented; a summary was provided by Sussie Pagh at the Aahus Museum of Natural History in a paper to the journal Lutra in 2008.

According to Pagh, foxes have been seen in and around Copenhagen since the time of the Slesvig Wars (1848 – 1850), where they apparently denned in the soldiers’ embankments. It seems that fox numbers increased dramatically thereafter and by 1860 they were apparently so numerous in the Frederiksberg Garden, in the west of the city, that they “almost undermined the Chinese Pavilion”. During the 1960s fox numbers were also high and, in 1963, naturalist Hans Hvass wrote of foxes regularly being sighted in built-up areas and showing little or no fear of humans. Little appears to have changed during the subsequent twenty years and Pagh noted how, from 1980 onwards:

“… the foxes of Copenhagen have received increasing media attention, with articles about fearless foxes entering gardens and houses.”

Frederiksberg Palace Gardens in Copenhagen. - Credit: Richard Mortel

There are still occasional reports of ‘brazen’ foxes in Copenhagen and Aarhus passing close by people without showing any apparent fear, although populations are estimated to have declined by some 50% to 60% following an epidemic of sarcoptic mange in Denmark. Timo Vuorisalo and his colleagues found reports of apparently bold foxes sitting and watching people pass by and taken poultry during the day in Finland during the 1890s.

In conclusion, urban foxes are not the preserve of Britain; they are found in cities throughout Europe and beyond, although the population structure and relationship with rural groups appears to be different to Britain. In many countries outside of the UK the relationship between foxes and their human neighbours is very different owing to the threat of disease, especially rabies. Indeed, Red foxes are the principle vector for rabies in Continental Europe and North America. Fortunately, Britain remains rabies-free and this has permitted the unsurpassed in-depth study of urban foxes. The result has been some fascinating and unique insights into how wild mammals can respond and adapt to their surroundings.