Our confused relationship with foxes: cull them, feed them, hunt them, kill them
Urban foxes are in our cities to stay. photograph: dave meehan
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.