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News / City Life

The secret life of London's foxes

The secret life of London's foxes
© Richard Peters

Love them or loathe them, 10,000 foxes share this city with us. But what do the auburn scamps get up to behind our backs? Lucy Jones reveals all...

Although I've lived in London for 12 years, seeing a fox never gets old. The sight of one slinking down the street, vaulting over a fence or snoozing on a roof is a rusty flash of wildness in a depleted landscape, a comet, a flame. I’ve been interested in the animals since I was young. I was fascinated at first by their vulpine intelligence, beauty and secret lives; later because they divided opinion and spoke to the way we perceive and treat animals, past and present. So I decided to write a book exploring the unique story of the fox in this country.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a garden with regular vulpine visitors, seeing a fox in the city is usually a stroke of serendipity. I discovered this when trying to observe them for my research. They tend to be out and about late at night or very early in the morning: those crepuscular, otherworldly hours, which adds to the magical experience of seeing one of Britain’s last, living predators in a human, urban environment. I could never be certain I’d see one. Even though around 10,000 live in the capital, they are strangely elusive. When I did manage to spot one on my ‘vulks’ (vulpine walks), it was unlikely to hang around. Where did it go? What did it do? Where did it live?

Urban fox, London

© Anders Dal

First things first, foxes live in earths: underneath sheds, on railway embankments, among tree roots, in bushes, wallows and dips. Foxes have even been known to live in trees. It was once thought the animals lived in traditional family groups – mother, father and cubs – but research suggests their social groupings are much more complex and not always the conventional 2.4 children set-up. A basic skulk (the term for a group of foxes) consists of the parents and cubs, but there is often a couple of non-breeding vixens in the group. The group maintains contact using scent and sound, keeping to their territory. The size of a territory varies considerably. It’s determined by the availability of food and is marked with urine to communicate to other foxes that an area is taken.

© Alan Habbick

In spring you may see cubs playfighting. By September they have reached maturity and can fend for themselves. But many don’t reach this stage. Only a minority survive their first year and the average fox lifespan is just 18 months, with traffic the most common cause of death. In urban areas, foxes are also killed deliberately: for digging up or fouling lawns, ransacking rubbish or ‘scaring’ residents.

The vixen’s scream is also famously disliked. You may have heard the urban myth that the high-pitched, chilling wail is emitted during mating as a result of the male fox’s barbed penis. Not true. It’s probably a romantic call from the vixen to say she is available. It’s just one of 28 different vocalisations, which suggests foxes have a complex language and way of communicating with each other.

© Sara Melhuish

Despite the popular image of foxes rifling dustbins, they are marvellous predators and have a wide, unfussy diet. In the city, they eat pigeons and rats and forage food thrown away by humans or deliberately left out for them. A surprising number of people regularly feed foxes and report that they like all manner of snacks, from porridge to Marmite sandwiches. In spring, a fox will pull earthworms out of the ground, sometimes hundreds in one night. In May, it will hoover up crane-fly larvae.

Later in the summer, it favours beetles until autumn brings an abundance of blackberries in places such as Walthamstow Marshes. Of course, chicken bones and burgers play a part too, but not as much as you might think. A 2001 study compared foxes in Bristol and London: it found that Bristol foxes scavenged around 64 percent of their diet while the London ones only got 35 percent of their food that way.

© stevekeiretsu

The urban fox might feel like a city fixture, but it’s a surprisingly modern phenomenon. The species only colonised London after WWII. In the late 1950s, the Natural History Society recorded that foxes were common in parts of the capital. By the early ’70s, they were established throughout London. One theory about why they arrived after the war is the spread of suburbia, with gardens and sheds providing perfect plots for foxes. This vulpine colonisation continued to the point that, these days, you wouldn’t be surprised to see one hanging around Oxford Street.

A pest-controller I went out with for research had a healthy amount of work every night killing foxes in London, but a lot of us love our vulpine neighbours. When a cull was proposed in Clissold Park last year, thousands of people signed a petition to save the foxes. Rescuers at wildlife centres work around the clock to look after ill or injured animals. And the Fox Project has a great helpline if you want to deter foxes without killing them. We should help our foxes, not persecute them. They are just going about their business, despite the myths spread by tabloids: they don’t ‘kill for fun’, nor are they ‘terrorising’ the city. They are an important, beautiful and characterful part of London’s rich, vibrant fabric.

'Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain' by Lucy Jones is published by Elliot & Thompson.



Pest C

Contrary to popular belief foxes are not classified as vermin by law.  Shooting an urban fox will simply result in it being replaced by another.  It's better to take a proactive approach and take bins out only on the day of collection and keep food wastes to a minimum in the bin collection areas.

Daniel N

When I worked at the Council they made me write a pamphlet about foxes. Obviously, they wanted to stir away from trapping and shooting. 

Basically, following the premise that a fox will occupy an area that is free, killing or removing a fox will free the territory for a new one. 

Still removing a fox nesting in your garden will give you peace for a long while and possibly a new fox may just choose to make its lair in another property's garden.


It seems that this post is missing few fun facts about foxes. Portraying foxes like the protagonist of a novel called - The Secret Life of Urban Foxes in London. 

Most people will agree with me that foxes are all around the town. A friend of mine joked about them saying they very much resemble stray dogs. Coincidently they too live underneath sheds, on railway embankments, among tree roots, in bushes, wallows and dips. 

I've had numerous encounters with foxes, one even came in for breakfast early in the morning. There was a pause while we both stared at each other with surprise. My house has no garden yet this particular fox keeps circling back to my neighbours and then back to my place. 

The secret why there are so many foxes in the city and around dates back to the WWII. During those years there was so much death, decay and

The war was over, but the rats weren't ready to leave. There was enough to make them lurk around. Back then people started raising foxes with the sole purpose to catch and kill rats. This is something we nowadays call natural pest controlling method, which back then was really effective. Since then foxes were more than welcome to roam free around the neighbourhood as long as they 'did their job properly'. 

Today foxes seem to be picky when it comes to food. I can't blame them judging how much fast food is regularly thrown away. If it was me I would too choose McDonald's or Burger King instead of scraggy rats.

People complain, hunt and even call pest control for foxes when their precious gardens are destroyed by them. In my experience, working alongside pest controllers shows that folks are very much OK with foxes running up and down the block. It is a personal vendetta that pushes people over the edge making them want to kill foxes.

Timmy Griffin @Fantastic

Joe O

Fox propaganda! They destroy my garden and poo everywhere. VILE.

Mary C

Sunday morning, 27th. Nov. 2016,  c 9.15 a.m., I came face to face with  a large dog fox foraging around just off Oxford St. He was quite grey, but very active, and nipped off quickly when he saw me.

Jo M

Whilst visiting Son and Daughter in law in Bermondsey, I was woken up by the foxes. I'd rather be woken by foxes than traffic.

Jessica S

One of the more interesting and thoughtful pieces featured in Time Out recently. Would be great to have a regular column on natural London