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?
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.
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.
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.
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.