City slickers: why foxes are right at home in Irish towns
“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.”