The Fantastic Mister Fox
Credit for this dog-walking tale has to go to my wife. She had Fern, Rush and May on a triple lead when they stood bolt upright like a trio of Meerkats, staring into a field bordered by woodland. They had seen fox cubs. Four of them. It become clear over the next few days there were more – seven. They would be about four months old, not oblivious to our presence, but not frightened either. Just wary.
Foxes occur the world over in many shapes and sizes. I have been fortunate enough to see and photograph a few of them. In Israel, the Fennec Fox with its amazing ears and in Tanzania, the Bat-eared Fox who’s ears should be more amazing, but they’re not.
People have mixed feelings about foxes. They can be cuddly, cute, full of the ‘aaah’ factor. Or vicious, opportunistic vermin. (The definition of vermin is pretty vague – creatures that are destructive, annoying, injurious to health, or animals that prey on game. Not many creatures don’t fall into some aspect of that definition. Including us.) Problems arising between people and foxes – or wildlife in general – are often based on a lack of understanding, or a conviction rooted in mythology and old wives’ tales:
Such as –
Foxes can mate with dogs.
They can’t. Although foxes and dogs are canines, they are genetically too diverse to breed. Reports of dogs and foxes interbreeding are at best wishful-thinking, and at worst deliberate porkies. Dogs can breed with dogs, wolves and dingos because they are all different races of the same species – Canis lupus. They can breed with coyotes and jackals because they are members of the same genus – Canis – but the offspring are likely to have fertility problems.
Foxes belong to the genus Vulpes. They are no more likely to breed with dogs than chimpanzees with gorillas.
Then there is the ‘Foxes kill cats’ misconception.They don’t. Not unless attacked, and then rarely. Foxes eat fruit, worms, insects and small animals, some of which are pests (e.g. rats, mice and pigeons). Rabbits are fair game if they can catch them as are pheasants. Cats are not on the menu. As competitors, cats are likely to give better than they get. Take a look at this short video of urban foxes taken by my wife in Weymouth –
Attacks on people by rabid foxes overseas are not uncommon and maybe something we can look forward to in the future now that the pet’s passport scheme has been reduced to a farce. Aside from that there are rare reports of people attacks, even a recent one, of a fox entering a house and attacking a baby. It surprises me that it doesn’t happen more often. The fox is one of our top predators. It is a wild animal – not a pet. It’s priority is survival. We have created an urban environment of waste food – discarded takeaways and overflowing refuse bins. We even invite foxes into our gardens, offer food and security. Yet few of us consider the consequences of these actions. I don’t think they put food out in their gardens in Kenya to marvel at the leopards.
Foxes are thought by some to kill for pleasure. Of course they don’t. I keep chickens and over the years have lost birds to foxes. On the face of it, a chicken coop full of dead, abandoned birds takes a bit of justifying – but – foxes are opportunist killers, especially when rearing young. Under natural conditions they will kill what they can, carry off what they can, to eat or bury for later. Then they will return for the rest – if we let them.
Finally, of course, everyone knows that foxes are meticulously clean. To keep themselves free of fleas, they will carry a ball of sheeps’ wool in their mouths when they swim in rivers, holding the ball out of the water. The fleas, to prevent themselves from drowning, will migrate towards the ball of wool. The fox releases the wool and the fleas float downstream. Brilliant.
(If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.)