Foxes - Urban (SIN003)

Urban Foxes

SIN003
2007

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Introduction

The adaptable nature of the red fox Vulpes vulpes has made it a very successful resident of many British towns. Although many people enjoy seeing foxes around their homes or in parkland, foxes can be a nuisance and sometimes cause damage. Foxes are not a protected species as such, but they are protected against abuse and ill-treatment.

Biology and behaviour

Foxes eat a wide range of foodstuffs. Their diet includes small mammals, birds (including eggs), reptiles, insects, earthworms, fruit, vegetables and carrion. In urban areas, about a third of their food is scavenged or deliberately provided by householders. Foxes readily store their food, usually by burying it in the ground. Foxes are predominantly nocturnal, but in urban areas the sight of a fox active during the day is not unusual.

Urban fox

Foxes usually shelter and breed below ground in an 'earth' or 'den'. They prefer well-drained soil and sometimes use burrows made by rabbits or badgers. In urban areas, they also live underneath sheds and outbuildings, even under the floorboards of houses.

Urban foxes tend to live in family groups comprising one dog (male), a dominant vixen (female) and subordinate vixens which may be the young of the previous year. The group defends a territory located within a larger home range (foraging area) which may overlap with that of other groups. Territories in urban areas are typically much smaller than in the surrounding countryside.

Foxes breed once a year, with cubs being born during March and April. The average litter size is 4 or 5. The cubs start venturing in the open from late April onwards, and will normally stay with the vixen until the autumn, with some remaining until January. Urban fox cubs usually disperse between 3 and 8 km (2–5 miles) of their birthplace. Foxes born in towns rarely move into rural areas.

Foxes can live for over 8 years, but this is rare; the average life span of foxes in towns is only 18 months. Most urban foxes are killed on the roads.

Problems with urban foxes

Domestic animals

Given the opportunity, foxes will kill small domestic pets and livestock such as rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks and chickens. Unlike many predators, foxes have the habit of killing more than they need to eat immediately. They may subsequently return for any uneaten corpses. Foxes are unlikely to be a danger to adult cats or dogs, although there are occasional reports of foxes fighting with a cat or small dog.

Nuisance

The digging, defecating, and bin-raiding habits of foxes can cause considerable nuisance and disturbance in urban areas. Gardens can be spoilt as foxes establish an earth, dig for invertebrates, bury food, or help themselves to fruit and vegetables. Complaints of 'unearthly screams' at night are also common during the mating season between December and February.

Spread of disease

Foxes can carry a range of parasites and diseases relevant to the health of domestic pets and people. Despite this, there is scant evidence that foxes are actually an important source of infection. Instead, domestic pets and particularly dogs, which are susceptible to a similar range of diseases as foxes, are probably a much more important source of infection for humans.

Foxes (and dogs) carry a number of internal parasites. For people, the most important are probably the roundworm Toxocara canis and tapeworm Echinococcus species, which causes hydatid disease. These diseases are acquired by ingestion of worm eggs passed in the droppings of an infected animal.

Foxes are also susceptible to Weil's disease (Leptospirosis), which can be passed on to domestic pets and humans via contact with their urine.

The most commonly observed infection of foxes is sarcoptic mange. This is a skin condition caused by a mite, resulting in extensive hair loss and which can be fatal if not treated. Highly contagious among foxes, there are few confirmed reports of mange being passed to dogs, although the geographical distribution of the disease in the UK is very similar for both dogs and foxes. Distemper has not been recorded in wild foxes in this country.

Britain is currently rabies-free, but in countries where rabies occurs, foxes can contract and pass on the disease.

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