The proposition for listeners to the radio phone-in was either hug or hunt the fox! Not that most listeners to BBC Five Live programmes are ever very likely to have either choice! The reason behind this curious choice was the latest story involving a ‘ferocious’ fox on the loose, a modern day favourite of some elements in the media. The story went that a ‘vicious’ fox had been found wandering around a sports centre. It was apparently so menacing that the assembled gathering of people were forced to retreat into an office. One of the assembled company attempted to offer the beast some food and got bitten for her pains.
A gentleman on a bike was then pursued into a field by this ravenous beast, where he fell off his bicycle and lost his glasses! Another claimed to have been chased around the car park. This, may I remind you, was a fox, not a man-eating Bengal tiger on the loose. An attempt was made by a ‘pest controller’ to apprehend the beast but he was forced to retreat to his car. In the end, the poor beast was put down, a sad end to what had otherwise become an hilarious story (albeit perhaps not for those involved!). So, there was the proposition to radio listeners; to hug or hunt!
The response was interesting. Apart from one lady who roundly condemned all foxes because one had entered her garden and slaughtered all her chickens, the foxes it seemed were well supported by the radio audience. I was tempted to call in and say that I never yet met a fox that carried a key to get into a hen house! Curiously, there was, throughout the broadcast, no mention whatsoever of the controversial subject of fox hunting! No takers there then! In general, the listening audience came down very heavily on the fox’s side.
Our relationship with foxes has changed. Once regarded as a wild, country dwelling creature, the fox has indeed become a familiar figure in urban and suburban Britain. Perhaps we have in many ways, invaded the fox’s rural domain, covered the countryside with motorways, allowed human settlements to swallow up more and more of the countryside and thus forced the fox to seek out a new, less rural homeland?
And it isn’t just foxes that these changes have effected. There are plenty of suburbanised badgers and increasingly deer too as we continue to commandeer more of the countryside. But the fox has probably adapted to these changes more effectively than most other creatures. And, as a result, new kinds of relationships between fox and mankind have developed. The number of people, who phoned in to the programme, telling of the regular trysts they enjoy with foxes, told its own story. Many for instance, related the fact that they regularly fed foxes in their gardens.
I have witnessed such acts of benevolence myself. A relative based in Britain’s capital city, was a regular feeder of her neighbourhood foxes. Indeed her generosity extended to such a degree that a vixen (and sometimes her cubs) would turn up regularly at the French windows, expecting a nightly feast which, if not delivered on time would prompt a rattling of the said windows by means of vigorous pawing, until food was delivered!
The result of course, was that these foxes have lost their natural fear of people. And that is why nowadays, so many suburban areas are populated by foxes, which seem to have shed their natural caution. We, of course, make living easier for urbanised foxes. Our city streets sadly, are littered with the remains of various kinds of ‘take-aways’, a gift for animals, which enjoy the most catholic of diets. Country dwelling foxes enjoy a remarkably varied diet which needless to say does not comprise entirely of lambs and chickens but which includes every variety of rodent, a surprising amount of vegetable matter and worms … by the bucket load!
City living may not produce the ideal balanced diet for foxes but the fox’s versatility when it comes to making a living for itself seems to know no bounds. I remember talking to some visitors who told me that they had recently moved to a new house on an estate, to be horrified to discover that the area was seething with rats. However, they reported that foxes has moved into their new garden, built an earth under the shed and had proceeded to demolish the rat population.
However, the urbanised diet can have its down side. Mange is sometimes a problem but even worse (for the foxes) are the activities of those who purport to control urban fox populations by trapping them and releasing them far out into the countryside. If the trapped animals have been urbanised for generations, when they are released into a countryside environment, their hunting instincts have become so dulled that they struggle to survive.
Relationships between wild animals and people sometimes surprise however. In recent years, there has been a welcome expansion of the pine marten population. Once heavily persecuted, these attractive arboreal members of the weasel clan are now protected and their spread into many Lowland areas has been welcomed for their predation upon grey squirrels, which in many cases has enabled our native red squirrels to re-establish themselves.
Pine marten usually build their nests either in trees or among rocks but the choice of a few free meals can it seems, persuade these otherwise shy and retiring creatures to bunk up close to or even in human habitation. Thus the offer by a friend of eggs and a few other assorted treats (peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches) has persuaded one female marten to co-habit with humans, to the extent that she found a way into the roof space of the house, where she has successfully reared a family.
It’s amazing what a free meal can do to change attitudes, even in such a naturally wild and retiring animal. Food is probably what that ‘ ferocious fox’ was looking for. Foxes eat many things but they don’t eat people!