Our confused relationship with foxes: cull them, feed them, hunt them, kill them

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

Until about eight weeks ago, I was quite clear where I stood on the fox issue.

In the countryside, they were graceful, resourceful, romantic creatures; an occasional nuisance to farmers, but an object of wonder to the rest of us. In the city, they were a harmless, nocturnal novelty; a regular reminder that we live in much closer proximity to nature than we sometimes think – as well as an elegant solution to the rodent problem.

I liked counting the ones I saw darting across the road during late-night taxi rides home. Even when my cat came limping home early one morning with a bloodied ear, I was reluctant to blame our nightly vulpine visitors.

Then, about two months ago, I encountered one brazenly strutting about on the flat roof outside my daughter’s bedroom – a dark, scrawny streak of menace that seemed to look right at me before it leapt down into a neighbour’s garden. Suddenly, foxes didn’t seem quite so cuddly.

Now, the reputation of vulpes vulpes is under siege. Last week, one nipped in the open back door of a house in Bromley in southeast London, and attacked a newborn baby, Denny Dolan, while he slept in his crib, ripping off his finger and leaving him with injuries to his face.

It’s not the first “fox maims baby” story to make international headlines – in June 2010, twin girls were left seriously injured by a fox attack in their home in east London; a year later and a few yards away, a five-year-old boy was bitten on the ear while he slept.

These stories provoke a similar reaction in us as the most gruesome Hans Christian Andersen tales: they’ve got the sleeping infants; the unknowing mothers in the next room; the savage, snarling intruder.

Once the story of the Bromley fox broke, the internet immediately filled with reports of children arriving home from school to find a fox lying in their bed; foxes squeezing their way in through cat flaps; foxes climbing skyscrapers. To read them, you might be forgiven for thinking it was only a matter of time before you came home from work one day, and found a fox had taken up residence on your couch, stolen your mobile phone, and ordered a Chinese takeaway on your credit card.

Alongside these accounts came the inevitable calls for these furred creatures to be culled – most prominently from the mayor of London Boris Johnson.

To one section of the population, foxes are a disease-ridden ginger menace, fattened up on a diet of cast-off curry chips and half-eaten pizzas.

To the other, they are a noble species more sinned against than sinning: hunted for their pelt; driven out of the countryside by farmers; robbed of a staple foodstuff by the Irish government’s decision to introduce myxomatosis to rabbits in the 1950s; and forced to move to the cities in search of sustenance.

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.

Healthy populations

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.

The trouble with foxes isn’t foxes themselves – it’s with the rest of us, and our on/off relationship with them. If we’re not calling for them to be culled, hunting them for their fur, or poisoning them to protect our poultry, we’re leaving out little suppers of dog food for them in the back garden.

It’s no wonder they’re confused – whatever they do, they’re foxed.

The chaos in our meat markets

The horsemeat scandal is no longer just an issue of cheap beef. The confusion about the origins of the implicated food raises sickening questions about how much we know about the food on our plates.

Take the Findus horsemeat lasagnes, which were produced in Luxembourg by French company Comigel. The head of Comigel says he “believed” his company was buying French beef from its supplier, Spanghero, whose parent company is called Poujol. But Benoît Hamon, France’s consumer-affairs minister, told the Financial Times that Poujol “acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader, which had sub-contracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands [who was] supplied from an abattoir and butcher in Romania”.

Somewhere along this convoluted food-production process, it appears one product was swapped for another, completely different one, and no one picked it up – until the Irish Food Safety Authority uncovered the Tesco “horseburger”. Even in the unlikely event other unpalatable substances aren’t discovered in our food chain, it is evident that the section of society that buys this kind of processed food may have been living on a kind of Frankenstein diet. And with the price of a basket of groceries gone up 12 per cent in two years, they probably don’t have much choice.

Come in, page three, your time is up

The end of an era that few women will mourn is nigh – and no, I’m not referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure.

Rather, Rupert Murdoch has hinted that he is “considering” whether it might be time to finally kill off the page-three girl. In response to a tweet from one of his followers, he wrote “Page three so last century! You may be right, don’t know but considering.” Later, he described the reaction to his tweet as “OTT”.

Come on, Rupert – you’ve had nearly 40 years to realise what an anachronistic relic the daily phenomenon of naked mammaries masquerading as news is. Those who mourn the demise of page three will trot out the old chestnut about a woman’s right to make a “feminist choice” if she wants to be photographed semi-naked.

But here’s the thing. She might have a choice, but the rest of us don’t. No one asks how we feel about the cat calls, the nasty comments, the irritation at being reduced to the sum of your (preferably naked) body parts, just because you’re a woman.

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