City slickers: why foxes are right at home in Irish towns
In the countryside, foxes are sen as a menace but in urban settings they are objects of near affection
Hunted, shot, poisoned, snared and trapped by humans, the rural fox has a lot of survival issues to deal with. Their urban brethren, however, have a very different relationship to mankind. As one of the few mammals to be found in cities and suburbs, most people are happy to have them around.
The most successful animals in the world are the ones linked, in one way or another, to humans. While the definition of “success” may vary depending on which animal group is being referred to – domestic pets, vermin or livestock – the creatures that have really thrived are those with a connection to mankind.
The fox is another more recent example: the urban fox, that is. People’s perceptions of this animal vary considerably depending on where you live. See one in the city and you’ll more than likely grab the nearest kid and point at the creature, all doting. The situation is a little different in the countryside.
“In rural communities they are seen in a less favourable light, particularly among the farming community, due to attacks on livestock, lambs and poultry,” says Dr Colin Lawton of NUI Galway. “Foxes, like all carnivorous animals, go on a killing frenzy and will kill say all the chickens in a coop despite maybe only eating one. It’s a natural drive in the wild. They kill them all, thinking they can return to the kill the following night and take another.”
In the city, foxes don’t have to plan so far ahead, safe in the knowledge that there’ll always be ample food around. “The urban fox needs a smaller home range, which is the area it requires in which to carry out all its daily activities: principally finding food,” says Lawton. “This is generally because they don’t need to roam as far in order to find things to eat.”
The real success of urban foxes is their adaptability. “Urban settings provide excellent resources for foxes: lots of safe dens in the form of large gardens or derelict properties, and they’re not afraid of humans as long as they don’t interact with them,” says Prof John Rochford of Trinity College Dublin. “They are classic opportunists and are extremely versatile creatures. Plus there’s a huge range of foods they’ll eat. Studies in the UK have shown that the arrival of wheelie bins has made hunting more difficult. But we’re messy people so there’s usually something somewhere to eat.”
Introduced into Ireland for hunting in the mid 1800s, foxes adapted easily to their surroundings. “It has been suggested that foxes may have come into Ireland as pets by the first settlers here but that’s not true,” says Lawton. “They don’t make good pets.
“There are a few things that can be seen as the driving force to push foxes into urban areas and help explain why it is a relatively recent phenomenon,” he says. “First of all, there was an increase in urban sprawl in the mid 20th century that meant their natural habitat was disappearing and replaced by the new habitat of houses, gardens and parks. Secondly, there was a sudden loss of a principal food source when rabbits were infected by myxomatosis [which was deliberately introduced by the Irish government in 1954].
“Their predators suffered by the sudden loss of their food and some species like stoats have taken a long time to recover. Foxes moved into the urban areas in search of food, and found alternative sources instead.”
What makes foxes less persecuted in urban Ireland than in other countries is the lack of rabies here. If they were carriers of that disease, their fate might be all too different. “They can harbour common diseases like toxocara canis, or dog roundworm, found in their faeces,” says Rochford.
Despite how commonplace sightings of urban foxes are, very little research has been carried out in terms of numbers. “We have no idea how many there are,” says Rochford. “Back in the 1990s, a survey was carried out of the Dún Laoghaire area of south Dublin. There was very limited interest at the time. But the survey did suggest they could be found in every half kilometre grid square measured in the area. There were sightings in every single garden surveyed, too. People who work nights tend to see more of them. We even have a den in the Provost gardens in Trinity College.”
Want to survive in the city? Learn to get along with humans
One of the reasons foxes have taken to living in Irish cities and suburbs is the diminishing space in their own natural habitats.
So could increasing urban sprawl leave other, bigger mammals with no choice but to become streetwise?
In Chicago, there have been increased sightings of coyotes in urban settings, particularly in and around O’Hare International Airport. “Coyotes have a very similar mammal ecology to foxes and are true survivors,” says Dr Colin Lawton of NUI Galway.
“They can move into an urban setting and basically stay hidden and survive. The bigger you are, the harder it is to survive in the city. Bears wouldn’t be able to get their daily food intake in a domestic bin. Plus it would be pretty dramatic if you saw a bear wandering into a city. I don’t think the authorities would allow that.”
Sightings of wolves and mountain lions on the fringes of other US cities have also been reported.
“In the last 25 years in Canada and the US wolves have started to make a comeback,” says Prof John Rochford of Trinity College.
“They are also being seen in increasing numbers in Europe: in Italy, Romania and southern France. People’s attitudes are changing to such creatures as their natural habitats continue to dwindle. The more resourceful animals will learn to live with man.”