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].