Brave fox
Image: Time Out

Are London’s foxes getting bolder?

The wily scavengers are sneaking into bedrooms, gifting dead rats and making bids to be your furry new bestie

Isabelle Aron

One balmy night in the first lockdown of 2020, Claire Strickett woke up with a jolt. She was unnerved. ‘Think I remember something hitting my hand, but I can’t say for sure,’ she says. ‘I just had a sense that there was something or someone else in the room.’ Her senses were on high alert. Then, she heard something moving under the bed. Quickly, she turned on the light. Her cat was sleeping by her feet.

So who or what was under her bed?

Strickett didn’t have to wait long to find out. After she turned on the light, the intruder shot out from under her bed and stood in the corner of her bedroom. It was not a burglar. It wasn’t human at all. It had four legs, a bushy tail and a fur coat. ‘IT’S A FOX,’ Strickett screamed.

It turned out that the back door had been left open and the fox had wandered in, going up the stairs from the garden and into the kitchen, then up another flight of stairs into Strickett’s bedroom. As far as she knows, the fox never returned for another visit. Either way, she wasn’t too concerned. In fact, she liked watching the family of foxes which had made their home in a neighbour’s garden. That said, she never expected to see one at the foot of her bed in the middle of the night.

Close encounters of the furred kind

What Strickett now refers to as the ‘Incident of the Fox in the Nighttime’ happened at her then-home in Earlsfield. And she isn’t the only Londoner to have had dealings with one of the city’s urban foxes. Lauren Crouch woke up to find a fox on her sofa one morning in her flat on Essex Road. ‘We tried to scare it out by banging pots and pans. We had a trail of sausages leading to an open window,’ she says. ‘Nothing worked. It didn’t move.’ Eventually, she had to call the RSPCA to coax the blighter out.

Fox decision-making is far more nuanced than ‘a city fox is a bold fox’

Others, though, are choosing to get close to these wild animals. Lots of people respond to my callout for fox stories telling me that they feed their local foxes. One north Londoner says she spent a few weeks feeding sausages to a fox, but she had to stop after it started bringing her dead rats as thank-you gifts. Another said that a fox got so comfortable within their gated community that the residents took a vote on what to do with it. The pro-fox contingent won. Victorious, the resident fox stuck around for a bit but then ‘sauntered off elsewhere of its own accord’. Typical.

Foxes aren’t a new phenomenon in London. They first started making the city their home in the 1930s, and The London Wildlife Trust estimates there are now roughly 10,000 in the capital. You’ve almost definitely heard their screeches at night, or come across one while walking home after a night out. But recently, it has felt like foxes are getting braver, wandering around in broad daylight, popping into people’s houses and happily getting close to the city’s human inhabitants. What’s going on here? Are there more foxes in the city, or are they just walking among us with ever-increasing amounts of chutzpah?

Trevor Williams is the founder of The Fox Project, a charity that rescues, rehabilitates and releases foxes. He says that the population of foxes in London is relatively stable, but that they’re simply becoming more comfortable around people. ‘Urban foxes are very adaptable,’ he says. ‘They're used to seeing people at close range. They know that we’re not much of a danger.’ Mathew Frith, director of conservation at The Wildlife Trust, agrees: ‘Over a period of time, we’re getting this generational learning that they are becoming more tolerant of people.’

But what do people in this city make of foxes? ‘They’re a Marmite species,’ says Frith. ‘Some people encourage them to come into their gardens and then there are those that hate them.’ It seems that an increasing number of Londoners are in the former camp. Williams says that when he first started The Fox Project 30 years ago, about 50 percent of the calls were from people who wanted help getting rid of a fox. Now, he estimates that about 95 percent of the calls he receives are positive.

According to Williams, this shift might have something to do with the pandemic and the lockdowns, when many people were stuck at home. He thinks that, during that time, people became more used to foxes, and some started interacting with them more. ‘People who went to work in the dark and came home in the dark were not aware that they had a fox population around them that was using their properties,’ he says. ‘A lot of people were quite pleased – they watched the foxes in their garden and became quite enamoured of them.’

Williams says that there being fewer cars on the roads during the first lockdown may have also contributed to people seeing foxes more often, as they felt more confident to come out in day time, although he says they are not strictly nocturnal animals.

Feeling a bit foxed

Someone who knows a lot about fox behaviour is Dr Blake Morton, an academic specialising in animal psychology at the University of Hull. Morton has been studying these four-legged creatures in London and around the UK, investigating whether urban foxes are getting bolder when it comes to new food opportunities. In the study, simple puzzles are left out with food inside, to see if the foxes will solve them to get the goods. ‘The study is still ongoing,’ says Morton, ‘but what we have found so far is that there seems to be a slightly higher tendency for populations in London to be a bit bolder. Compared to the rest of the country, we’ve had more foxes in London solving these puzzles.’ But, while the foxes have been interested in the puzzles and will circle them, most of them wouldn’t touch them.

London is a pretty hard place to live even for us

So, what does this all mean? When it comes to foxes, Morton says ‘It’s not a one size fits all’ situation. ‘I think their decisions are very specific to certain things. It could be that city foxes are not bold in the first instance because they’re guarded and that protects them from risk. But maybe they quickly learn to overcome that,’ he says. ‘Fox decision-making is far more nuanced than the sweeping generalisation that a city fox is a bold fox.’

Clearly, more research is needed to get into the minds of these inquisitive creatures. If you are noticing more foxes, it might be that your neighbours are feeding them. ‘Foxes want natural prey as well as the odd McDonald’s,’ says Williams. ‘People tend to think that nothing can survive without them. But don’t put out a three-course meal every night – the foxes might take surplus food away and bury it in somebody else’s garden. You could be upsetting your neighbour because not everybody likes having foxes around.’

It’s true that some Londoners get riled by foxes. After all, they have a habit of leaving random shoes on your doorstep or waking you up at night with their screeching. But perhaps everyone, fox-lover or not, should at least admire the tenacity of these plucky characters. ‘Learn to celebrate an animal that has adapted so well to the city,’ says Frith. ‘It takes a fair degree of physiological and psychological tolerance and plasticity. London is a pretty hard place to live even for us, but here you’ve got a primary carnivore that has made the city its home. Even after the thousands I’ve seen, I think they’re marvellous animals.’

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