Another Life: The fox as he dwells among us

Michael Viney: A predator denning in parks, gardens and wasteland gets mixed responses

Fox with prey: The urban adult is “thin and exhausted” from finding and ferrying food to its cubs. Illustration: Michael Viney

Fox with prey: The urban adult is “thin and exhausted” from finding and ferrying food to its cubs. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Of the many surreal images in the iconography of lockdown, for me the most telling was the trotting fox on a shuttered, empty Grafton Street. There was something post-apocalyptic in the glimpse of this foraging, purposeful creature as the only sign of life.

For many Dubliners, no doubt, the news video was no great surprise. “Everyone” knows there are foxes in dens in shrubberies near the Dáil. Dozens have had foxes playing on their lawns, chewing the kids’ toys and squatting among the roses. Urban foxes are an old story.

Living on a hillside dotted with sheep and lambs, I no longer expect to meet Vulpes vulpes. “On well-run farms”, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “pests have to be kept down.”

The last living fox I actually saw was running fast along the strand, closely harassed by a pair of magpies. Otherwise, the continuing local presence of the species lies in the fine tracks stitched along the tideline, pausing at a dead crab or plastic-strangled gannet.

The ecological phenomenon of city foxes, however, remains new enough to warrant explanation and much study. As UCC mammalogist Paddy Sleeman put it recently on RTÉ: “Meeting a fox in a city is like meeting a friend in another country. It feels like the individuals and surroundings don’t match.”

How they all moved there and why is simple enough. Canals, railways and riverbanks were corridors to abundant food, from city rats and mice to garbage bags and pigeons. Grey squirrels, too, as Dr Sleeman mentions in their favour.

But since foxes are predators, denning in the city’s green lacework of parks, gardens and undeveloped waste ground, their interactions with people, children and pets were bound to bring mixed responses.

Dramatised fear

On one hand were fears and the odd incident, with the media ready to dramatise them. On the other were delighted encounters with “nature” and dishes of dog food put out on the lawn. Conflicts are as often between neighbours as from actual fox behaviour.

Both the ecology of urban foxes and their relationships with humans have attracted abundant study, notably in the UK. As Stephen Harris has noted, “More papers have been published about foxes living in urban Britain than about those in any other habitat in the world.”

Dr Harris, now retired from Bristol University, was a pioneer of research into the urban fox half a century ago, and has served as the animal’s leading scientific defender ever since. In a recent article for British Wildlife magazine, he again worked through the many “widely disseminated myths”.

For a start, urban foxes have not grown any bigger or bolder than their rural cousins. With a shortage of the “larger food items” the countryside provides – the odd lamb, rabbit or ground-nesting bird – July finds the urban adults “thin and exhausted” from finding and ferrying food to their cubs.

Do they attack pets? Surprisingly few, says Dr Harris. One of his studies in Bristol found they killed 8 per cent a year of pets kept outdoors, everything from poultry and rabbits to gerbils, goldfish and tortoises.

Night patrol

As for attacking cats, “Of the thousands of interactions I have seen between foxes and cats, all the aggressive encounters were started by the cats.”

On its nightly patrol a fox may encounter hundreds of cats, says Dr Harris. It ignores most of them, avoids the aggressive ones and is known to share a midnight snack with one at the leavings of a dog’s dish.

What about human babies? He rejects the idea that foxes ever “attack” them, as sometimes dramatised by Britain’s tabloids. He agrees they can give rare bites, some with serious consequences, but suggests this arises through exploratory mouthing of little hands or legs while “investigating a strange object”. Hunting by sound rather than smell and thus not drawn by milk or dirty nappies, they may be attracted to investigate cots or prams by infant wails of distress.

Like other wild mammals, foxes carry diseases and parasites, inviting fears of risk to the health of people or pets. “The latest scare”, as Dr Harris calls it, is the parasite he calls French heartworm, potentially fatal to dogs if left untreated.

As I reported here in 2016, the UCD veterinary school was concerned by a sudden trebling in cases of dog “lungworm” (the parasite affects both heart and pulmonary arteries). In a massive sampling of 542 foxes, gathered from every county, it found the nematode in 40 per cent, more than double the rising UK figure.

Dogs can pick it up through slugs or snails that have visited both garden fox droppings and dog dishes left outdoors overnight. Dr Harris is duly concerned for them, but points to the pulmonary distress of foxes as well.

“Dogs and cats, not foxes,” he asserts, “ dominate the urban ecosystem and we are already seeing the impacts of their diseases on the health and welfare of urban foxes.”

Dr Paddy Sleeman finds the public health risk intensifying European study. But he favours new approaches to health that consider “the entire ecosystem – people, domestic animals and wild animals all at the same time”.

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