Our confused relationship with foxes: cull them, feed them, hunt them, kill them
Dave Wall, a wildlife consultant who did a study on urban foxes in Dublin 10 years ago, says he found that, “when it comes to foxes, you’re verging on war on some streets, because half the neighbours are for supporting them, and half the neighbours – usually the gardeners – hate them”. As is the case with most public outcries, both perspectives are skewed.
Yes, the account from Bromley is horrifying, but fox attacks on humans are rare; much rarer than attacks by domestic dogs, and no one would suggest culling them. Foxes have been co-existing with humans in Dublin since Victorian times, but Wall says he has yet to come across an incident here of a child being injured by one – although he was once called upon to help get a fox out of a Dublin attic.
On the other hand, foxes are not endangered – on the contrary, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature puts the fox on the list of animals about whom it has the “least concern”.
Virtually the only large, wild animal that has successfully adapted to urban and suburban living, foxes are one of us now – and there’s not much we can do about it. Because, despite Boris Johnson’s rousing declaration of war, culls don’t really work.
There was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.
Here, Wall reckons the numbers in cities including Dublin, Belfast and Cork have remained largely stable since the 1980s, with occasional fluctuations. In some suburbs of Dublin, that means one or two foxes per square kilometre. In others, including the one in which I live, there may be as many as 30 to 40.
The occasional fox in your back garden might be a novelty; the prospect of a brace of them casually sauntering up to your back door or trying to get in your child’s bedroom window is a little alarming.
And that’s the real problem. Half of us might be way too hysterical about the threat of foxes, but the other half are not nearly wary enough. Foxes may not be growing in number, but they are becoming bolder – and guess who’s to blame for that? When we should be keeping a respectful distance, some of us insist on leaving food out for them, or fail to properly secure our rubbish. Wall says he knows of “ladies who buy chicken fillets every week, and cook them up for the foxes”.
He doesn’t advise against feeding them – or at least, not if you do it right at the bottom of your garden – but he does caution against trying to make pets of them. “People need to remember that these are wild animals,” he says. Roughly translated, this means foxes may be cute, but they’re also unpredictable, untameable carnivores.