The fox (Vulpes vulpes)
We all grow up being taught that the fox is not to be trusted. Much of our literature, especially children’s stories, tells us to be wary constantly of this creature, as it is usually ‘up to no good’!
Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Crow shows how crafty the fox can be, flattering the crow so much that it opens its beak and drops the piece of cheese that it is holding, allowing the fox to gobble it up! Fantastic Mr Fox, the children’s novel written by Roald Dahl, is all about a fox that outwits his farmer neighbours to steal their food from right under their noses.
Aesop’s other tale, about The Fox and the Grapes, depicts a rather skulking character who, driven by hunger, tries to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine. Even though he leaps with all his strength, he can’t reach them. As he walks away he remarks, 'Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes!’ – hence the well-known phrase sour grapes, when you cannot attain something that you wanted.
Hidden among all this mistrust, we do have a sneaking admiration for the fox, as John Masefield demonstrated in Reynard the Fox where, even though he shows once again that the fox is sly, amoral, cowardly, and self-seeking, he can also be a sympathetic hero, whose cunning is a necessity for survival, often symbolising the triumph of craft over brute strength.
So what is the true picture of this animal, and is the reputation that is so commonly fed to us as children, misguided or pretty much spot on?
Well, the first thing to say is that the fox is an amazingly adaptable species, being found across all of Britain, but absent from Scottish Islands (except Skye). They inhabit just about every type of habitat too, with the size of their territories depending on exactly where they live, so that they can be as small as 0.2 square kilometres in urban areas or up to 40 square kilometres in hill country.
A fox can see quite well and has acute hearing, but its world really revolves around scent. Territorial boundaries are constantly ‘marked’ with urine, faeces and scent glands, which are located on the tail, face, foot pads and bottom, all combining to send messages to other foxes in the area. A range of barks, yaps and shrieks are also used to communicate, especially around the mating and breeding season.
Perhaps the next thing to say about the fox is that it is the top mammalian predator in the country now that wolves and bears are no longer present. Its omnivorous diet is wide and varied, ranging from fruit, worms, beetles and small mammals through to birds, larger mammals and carrion, including rubbish and food waste left around by humans.
It is the fox’s undoubted prowess as a superbly skilful predator that leads to so much of the reputation that it carries around its neck of being sly, crafty and full of guile. That exceptional nose, coupled with its finely tuned hearing powers means that the tiniest hint of scent given off from a ruffled feather on the back of a ground nesting bird, or the faintest squeak from a young mammal, means that it will not pass unnoticed, with obvious consequences.
Foxes are surprisingly agile creatures and also seem to be able to size up the likelihood of danger. An early memory of mine was of a rather dark coloured dog fox that used to spend most days curled up in the top of an old pollarded willow tree, a hidden eye following me as I passed below. In urban areas, a warm sheltered bit of roof, often quite high up will be chosen as a safe, undisturbed place to pass daylight hours. Studies by Oxford University, who radio tracked urban foxes, found one particular individual that spent the day curled up on the central reservation of the Oxford bypass – although noisy, completely undisturbed by humans and dogs!
Foxes breed only once a year, the vixen choosing a suitable den or 'earth' by digging her own hole in a bank or using an existing cavity in a rock crevice or space under a garden shed. A litter of four or five cubs is born after a gestation period of 53 days in March or April and are blind, have round faces and short ears, and are covered with dark, chocolate brown fur.
The vixen stays with her cubs in the earth until they are two weeks old, relying on the dog fox to bring her food. The cubs grow quickly, their eyes opening when 10-14 days old. At around 4-5 weeks they begin to come out of the earth and their dark fur starts to change to the well-known colour of red-brown. The vixen is incredibly vigilant at all times, and if at any point she believes her cubs are at risk, she will carry them by the scruff of the neck to a new, safer hiding place.
Foxes have vertical pupils within the eye that look more catlike than a dog's rounded pupils, so that a resting fox with its brush (tail) curled across its face, with eyes peering over the top, does have a rather arrogant, aloof appearance. This of course only helps to boost the sly, crafty reputation of an animal that can “outfox” you with relative ease.
I was raised in ‘Ledbury country’, surrounded by people from all walks of life who regularly followed the Ledbury hunt, and I mixed with farm workers and keepers who controlled fox numbers by shooting them. Today, as part of my job giving advice to land managers, I cover the impact that foxes can have on certain other species and the necessity on occasions to control their numbers.
But I have never forgotten what Nimrod Champion, Master of the Ledbury hunt, said to me when I was just a lad. It was nearly dark on a mid winter’s afternoon after a long hunt, the fox had got away and so I gave the Master my commiserations. “Remember,” he said, “the fox is an amazing animal, which should always command our greatest respect, so good luck to him, he was better than us today!”
He then blew going home on his horn and drifted away into the gloom, followed by a tired and very muddy pack of hounds.
Read more from Peter Thompson at the Fresh from the Field blog.