Saturday, October 4, 2008

Urban red foxes in the Russia Dock Woodland

A few years ago I arrived home from a trip to Egypt and the first thing that I saw when I opened my front door were scattered shoes and handbags all over the hall and kitchen floor. I thought that I had been robbed. It only took me a few moments to realize that something rather stranger was going on. All the items were leather and all had been chewed. My father, who was with me, saw a flash of bright orange vanishing up the stairs and we followed it up into the living room. A small and terrified red fox was sitting there.

It took us a while to get the poor thing out. The next day a near neighbour told me that he had seen it climbing through the catflap a few days previously. It must have been literally starving by the time we managed to release it.

Urban red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are now a feature of life in London and other UK towns and cities. The photographs on this page were taken last Sunday at around 1pm when there were lots of people milling around. Very confident! I don't think that I have once visited the Russia Dock Woodland or the ecological park without seeing at least one fox, and they are often to be seen in the residential areas around here. They are less bold than the squirrels, and far easier to startle, so it is difficult to gain an impression of how many of them are here, but I suspect that like the resident squirrels their population is growing.

Red foxes are very agile and mobile and are often quite solitary. They will eat almost anything, whether they are in an urban or rural setting, including worms, beetles, fruit, ducks, mice, rabbits, chickens, pigeons, baby birds and household waste.

In the nineteenth century they were considered a menace, leading to farmers and gamekeepers taking action to control their numbers. However, before the First World War fox hunters imported them from Europe for sport, helping in a really grizzly way to revive populations in the United Kingdom, and during the war many of those responsible for culling the red fox were sent to fight. Another contributory factor to their revival may have been myxomatosis in rabbits. Rabbits became a major part of the red fox food intake and this gave them a new form of food security. It is thought that the expansion of fox populations may well have driven adult foxes to seek new territories.

Foxes mate in winter and cubs are born early in spring but don't emerge until April. They come out mainly during evenings, but increasing numbers can be found enjoying the sun in the late afternoons.

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