(Nature In the City series)
(Reading time: 5 mins.)
These nights in March and early April you might hear and might have heard as far back as January, nearby or in the distance, a short sequence of barks: Bar! Bar! Bar! – something like that. Or rarely, a sequence of four. These are calls from a male fox, telling any vixen within hearing distance that he’s available – and any other males, to keep away.
I think I have only heard them after midnight but then at various times throughout the night.
While humans in our society are practicing social distancing due to the Coronovirus-19 pandemic, the foxes are seeking social closeness. Or some of them are.
The dog fox is not after casual sex – if he mates, he will stay with the female and, when she is lactating, feed her and the cubs. Of course, that is more easily done in the city than in many rural locations, with the amount of food that is discarded by human society. Also, foxes are generally not hunted in the city where, if humans carry guns, it’s usually in order to shoot other humans.
The fox has to advertise and so does the vixen, because she will only come into estrus for one three-week period in the year. If dog fox doesn’t come calling then, he won’t be welcome later. If you have heard her calling for a mate, you won’t forget it: an almost unearthly scream which, if you didn’t know about it, would have you believing in the bean sí (banshee) or possibly a woman being attacked.
Should she find a mate, she will prepare a den, usually an adapted or newly-dug burrow, where the cubs will be born around 50 days later. They need the mother’s warmth until three weeks old to avoid hypothermia, so she cannot leave the den. Her mate, the dog fox, will go out each night and bring her back food and, when the cubs are but a little older, bring them some too – in his stomach. Regurgitated semi-digested food might not sound salubrious but the cubs could not manage anything else along with their mother’s milk. Sometimes there might be another but unmated female in attendance too; unmated companion females can give the vixen a break a little later so that she can go out foraging and hunting for herself.
Humans wean their young off milk with finely-mashed or even partly-chewed solids which, before baby foods were widely available, had to be prepared by parent or child-minder (frequently an older sibling). But then the human child has many years to come to full adulthood whereas the fox has to accomplish that in a year or a little over. In the wild, adult foxes generally live only as long as five years, while in captivity they can reach three times that.
It is probably best not to feed foxes, which are after all wild animals that may become overly familiar, not only with their feeder and with their belongings – but with their neighbours’ things too. On an allotted piece of ground I rented from the local London authority years ago and where I cultivated vegetables and some fruit bushes, by day I often came across a chewed toy or a shoe, presumably taken from a nearby back garden and played with for awhile.
Finishing at dusk, I sometimes saw the ghostly shapes of adults and cubs, not fleeing but giving me a wide berth nevertheless.
Stories of them attacking and killing small dogs and cats are probably apocryphal for a number of reasons, chief among them being that they have no need to attack such animals since they have no shortage of food in the city. Also little dogs are not usually roaming around at night and, in a fox-watch documentary about urban foxes in I think Bristol city decades ago, every time a confrontation between a fox and a cat was filmed, it was the fox that backed down.
Unless one is keeping poultry or rabbits in pens or runs outside, it is hard to see how foxes can be classified as pests or seen as causing us problems. Even in rural areas, a ewe is quite capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal which after all is not much bigger than a cat.
None of that information prevented Boris Johnston, when he was Mayor of London, from proposing a cull of the city’s foxes. Having observed this gentleman in action as the Prime Minister of the UK, most people will probably not be surprised that he had failed to learn from a comparatively recent history, because despite a large and expensive culling program in the 1970s, the fox population jumped right back.
In a previous article published on the Rebel Breeze blog (Scream on a December Night) I wrote the following:
“Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.
“Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s. According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.”