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Urban Foxes - Friend Or Foe?

07/03/2017 14:42

Uh oh, here we go again - another urban fox on the attack story. This time though it was a dog that fell afoul of the savage beast rather than a human - it was a loving pet Chihuahua called Madison. To save the dog the owner had to run into the garden and kick the fox, so hard that she broke her toe.

To be specific, the owner is quoted as saying: "I was kicking the fox in the head to try and get it to let go of her out of its mouth. I thought she was dead already at first. I was kicking and kicking. He pulled away from me and started dragging her little body across the ground. I just gave the fox this almighty kick and that's what broke my toe." Madison's owner added: "All I wanted to do was damage this fox" and informed the likely now baying public that her friend has since given her a cricket bat to be ready in case the fox comes back (just as a point of clarity attacking a wild animal is illegal).

The headline of the story in the Evening Standard was 'Personal trainer saves pet Chihuahua from vicious fox attack'.

So, let the floodgates open to call for a cull, let the quotes start from the public and politicians about this 'growing menace' and 'the explosion of fox numbers in London and the big cities' and let's all have a jolly good panic for a week or two about foxes in our environment!

Please do not get me wrong, I am very sorry to hear about a loving pet getting mauled by a fox, or indeed getting hurt by anything at all, I love dogs with a passion, but it's the portrayal of foxes in the media which always seems so disproportionately sensational and fear inducing. Before we look at the facts, let's look at some other headlines over the last few years:

Woman tells of horror at being bitten by a fox on two separate nights (2010, Daily Mail)

Fox bites off woman's finger (2011, The Sun) (not strictly accurate here, it relates to the fox biting the tip of her finger)

Fox attacked baby boy in own home, police say (2013, BBC News Website)

Terror as fox bites toddler, 3, on sledge and tries to drag him away (2013, The Sun)

Toddler rushed to hospital in fox attack (2014, The Telegraph).

So, there is definitely some human fox interaction going on here, but usually the detail of these stories for anyone reading beyond the headline is a little different. It seems to be mainly young inquisitive foxes exploring, looking for food and 'mouthing' (in absence of fingers like humans they explore with their mouths), rather than purposeful biting. The other is when the fox is cornered or trapped and its natural instinct, like pretty much all wild animals, is to defend - fight or flight. One reason for this demonisation of foxes could well link to fox hunting. Since the Hunting Act of 2004, aspects of the mainstream media have continually defended hunting as a harmless past-time, a form of wildlife management, and worked against anyone who dares to think otherwise. Alongside this, scaremongering with the public against foxes is the perfect complement to these stories, leading to a double-edged attack on our native foxes.

Again, I'm not saying these things aren't bad, because no-one, me included, would want a wild animal biting or mouthing a baby. It is a recipe for disaster, but just how big is the problem and should we really be terrified of this so-called 'urban menace'. The simple answer is no, we shouldn't.

Foxes generally stay out of the way of humans; they will only attack out of fear. It is estimated that there are around 225,000 foxes in the UK in rural areas and 33,000 urban foxes (about 16% of total numbers). In London, the scene of the latest fox attack headline, there are around 10,000 against a human population of around 8.7 million - so there's around one fox for every 870 people. That's hardly over-run. The other thing that we always hear following a story like this is that their populations are growing, that they are out of control, that they are a danger to everyone and everything. The thing is though, that the most recent research suggests no significant increase in urban fox numbers since the 1980s. Of all mammals, foxes are remarkably good at self-regulating (i.e. in simple terms if you culled 1,000 foxes they would somehow breed more or less another 1,000 foxes), so removal/killing (other than total eradication), or relocation has limited or no effect on numbers.

I think we need to be grown up about this - in our big cities we share space with lots of people and lots of things. Just a week or two ago our office was called to help with a fox that was sitting in the bike sheds downstairs. He wasn't doing anything, just sitting there. They shooed him away and he came back so we went down to have a look. We advised he'd probably just up and leave as dusk fell and that he was a young healthy looking cub, probably scared while out exploring. Thought it isn't completely possible to tell what a fox is feeling, his body language was certainly suggesting he was fairly terrified. We were told that "people were too scared to go in and get their bikes" and one woman commented she was "worried that he'll attack someone".

Seriously, if foxes were really walking around attacking humans willy-nilly, do you think we rather arrogantly wouldn't have 'fixed' the problem by now. Can you imagine if the streets of London were a no go zone due to foxes, that MPs and councillors were being savaged on the way to work nothing would have changed?

Humans and wildlife need to coexist - it is no more our space than theirs and quite honestly, though some may disagree, we have absolutely no greater right to be here, or anywhere, than them. So let's not call for a cull, let's not live in fear, and let's celebrate quite how amazing it is that thousands of foxes live amongst us, in harmony. And, remember, there have been just a handful of fox 'attack' stories over the last five years, but just as a point of reference recent NHS data revealed that during a 12-month period (March 14 to February 15) there were more than 7,000 admissions for dog bites or attacks, so your pooch, or someone else's, is probably a bit more likely to bite than our foxy friends.

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