Foxy

Peter Campbell

  • Running with the fox by David Macdonald
    Unwin Hyman, 224 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 04 440084 5

The red fox is found throughout Europe, Asia and North America. It was introduced to Australia, although Tasmania is fox-less as the brace which hunting military men took there were destroyed. Foxes live in deserts and cities as well as in the hunting shires. They are opportunists, and not loved for it. Plain hunting has a long history: fancy persecutions were invented later. In 18th-century Germany fox-tossing was fashionable: ‘foxes were persuaded to run over narrow slings of webbing of which one end was held by a gentleman, the other by a lady. The “players” tossed the fox as it walked the tightrope – a good toss being up to twenty-four feet high. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was an enthusiastic fox-tosser and is reputed to have tossed to death some 687 foxes in one session.’ But hunters were also early systematic observers. Edward, second Duke of York, in his Master of the Game noticed what David Macdonald’s research has confirmed: foxes eat worms. As it became a more respectable quarry the fox was pampered: its habitat was protected, its enemy, the farmer with chickens, bought off, and the long argument between preservers of game and chasers of foxes began. An 18th-century hound-breeder said that ‘the murder of foxes is a most absurd prodigality.’ Those who hunt animals find the fox such a satisfying quarry that if hunting with hounds does die out it is more likely to be as a result of intensive farming – wire and spring clover do not go well with jumping horses – than thanks to the efforts of hunt saboteurs. Foxes in cold climates dress too warmly for safety, but even the British trade in fox furs peaked at over fifty thousand pelts in the late Seventies,

Foxes call to each other and recognise the voices of other foxes. A lot of their conversation is olfactory, and it seems possible that they call more when they have fewer scent marks to read. Levels of aggression, fearfulness and submission are expressed by flattened cars, back-arching, grins and the elevation or depression of the tail. They are lightly-built, long-legged, and have a bushy tail for mid-air control. They have evolved a body optimised for a hunting speciality – the mouse leap, the classic description of which is in a paper called The Fox as a Guided Missile’. Their scent-marking organs include the tail gland, which smells of violets (tail-swishing on social occasions may be a scent-spreading move), anal sacs which contain an acrid-smelling milky fluid, and scent glands between the toes. Scents which tell where the fox has been and bring the hounds on may keep foreign foxes off. Smells conceivably have meanings beyond presence and absence, but that is a matter on which Macdonald says ‘our ignorance is unblemished.’

The crafty fox as a character in fiction emerges in the early Middle Ages. The stories take colour from genuinely foxy behaviour. Wolves and foxes are natural enemies, competitors for the same food and habitats, and Reynard humiliates Isengrin the wolf by seducing his wife Hersent. He scornfully urinates on her whelps (urine marking is very foxy). Reynard’s revenge when Hersent’s cubs complain to their father, and she accuses him of rape, is more anthropomorphic: the wolves chase him, Hersent gets stuck in the mouth of a hole, and Reynard does then rape her in front of her husband. Even such unlikely scenes as Reynard preaching to congregations of geese may have been inspired by accounts of foxes being mobbed by birds. They are difficult pets: destructive and smelly (Macdonald has ‘always rather liked the lingering smell of fox urine’, but it is not a taste many acquire). Those seduced by the prettiness of a deserted cub (which probably wasn’t deserted at all) often come to regret their weakness. David Garnett’s lady who became a fox was pretty and troublesome. I am glad to know, incidentally, of a lady who called her pet fox James after a (sweet-smelling) contributor to the London Review.

A fox group, usually a dog fox and several related vixens, occupies a territory, which it hunts in and defends. Subordinate, non-breeding vixens help in the defence of the territory, and may spend much effort rearing the cubs of the dominant vixen. Why some of the vixens in a group do not breed is uncertain. They may be kept from the dog fox by the dominant vixen, or the fact of subordination may turn off the scent signals which would indicate receptivity. Macdonald thinks that social hierarchy is more important in vulpine fertility control than non-ovulation. In autumn most of the litter of the previous spring will disperse. The distances they travel to find a new territory averages four to six territory widths. In Boar’s Hill, one of the areas Macdonald has studied, the average size of territory is under a hundred acres, and the smallest only a quarter that size. In such country a fox may spend years within an area it can cross in a minute. In woodland, territories are larger, and in farmland larger still. In Cumbria, home ranges average more than 2400 acres, and a dog fox in the deserts of Oman had a range five times that size.

Foxes are omnivorous and their diet varies greatly. Fecal analysis provides the hair which proves what vole or mole the fox ate, or the soil which proves the meal was of earthworms. A rubber castrating ring indicates lamb’s testicles, plastic string and silver paper dustbin scavenging. In a Cumbrian study, rabbit and bird made up more than half the diet, on Boar’s Hill earthworms were the single largest source of food, on a farm it was fruit. Variations in the availability of food affect population and territory size. One group of studies seems to show that in mixed farmland and forest, where voles are of minor importance in the foxes’ diet, territory and sizes are stable, the size of the group occupying each territory is large, and social suppression of reproduction occurs – there are many barren vixens. In the Boreal forest, on the other hand, territories expand and contract in response to fluctuations in the highly variable population of voles, which form the staple diet. In good vole years most vixens secure territories and breed, in bad vole years most do not.

Most foxes die young – juveniles have a life expectancy of about 1.5 years – and most are killed by man, or by rabies where that is endemic. Forty to 60 per cent of foxes ear-tagged by biologists were returned by motorists or hunters. But a fox population can sustain 60 per cent annual mortality, so it won’t be easy to kill off the species. In rabies-free Britain the control of fox populations is of most interest to farmers and gamekeepers. One effect of foxes on a population of grouse may be to keep it healthy by removing birds infected by parasitic worms (they are easier to smell), while at the same time reducing the overall numbers. But grouse are a cash crop, not a natural population, so keeping them healthy is not enough. As Macdonald puts it, ‘foxes could only hope for absolution in the eyes of gamekeepers if they restricted themselves to grouse doomed to die before 12 August.’

If a poultry-keeper put a fox in the dock after a bout of ‘surplus killing’, the defence would be: ‘the chickens led me on.’ Macdonald, who has watched such bouts, describes the foxes’ behaviour as ‘playful, or perhaps merely purposeful’. When the prey refuses to get up and go, the predator does what it has to do. In a famous study of mass-killings of black-headed gulls by foxes Hans Kruuk showed that the birds (which had eccentrically nested on dunes, not on tussocks in marshland as they should have done) preferred sitting tight to flying on moonless nights. It was on such nights that the killings took place: the fox did its duty as an evolutionary agent and selected against silliness.

With lambs, as with grouse, it can be argued that foxes tend to kill the sickly ones. But in lowland areas more and more sickly lambs are saved for the market, and in hill country the reputation of the fox makes controlled experiments impossible. ‘In many upland areas asking a shepherd not to kill foxes to test the effect on lamb mortality would be asking something almost unthinkable.’

The morality of fox-hunting and game-shooting (the latter accounts for ‘the frequently unpleasant deaths in the order of 100,000 foxes annually in Britain’) is not affected by the statistics Macdonald produces, but the facts he relays (hunting farmers preserve more hedges, packs kill 15,000 foxes a year, one sample of pursuits shows them averaging 17 minutes) establish the scale and character of the sport. Surveys of urban foxes uncovered more sly Reynardish japes than humanly-unacceptable predation. Foxes were reported for stealing eggs from doorsteps and fruit from a living-room table, for pulling down a washing-line, scattering grass clippings and habitually leaving muddy pawprints on the roofs of a second-hand car-dealer’s stock.

Foxes are highly susceptible to rabies – a fox can be infected by only one ten-thousandth of the dose of virus needed to infect a human. The infection is always fatal, and as it spreads reduces populations to the point where foxes (and the disease) become rare. As the population builds up, the disease once again becomes visible. The present wave of rabies began in 1939 in Poland; its rate of spread across Europe, twenty to sixty kilometres per year, has been unaffected by attempts to exterminate carriers. In fact, these attempts may even help spread the disease, because foxes are infected by contact, and control measures which destroy the fox social order may increase aggressive inter-territorial conflict. An interesting experiment was made in Switzerland, where, at the junction of the branches of Y-shaped valleys, alternative methods of rabies control were put into practice. An attempt was made to kill all the foxes at the entrance of one branch. At the other entrance chicken heads loaded with a rabies vaccine were put out. Rabies spread up past the cleared areas, but was stopped by the population of healthy, vaccinated foxes. The vaccine used was potentially dangerous, but a safer is now available and there is, for the first time, hope of control.

These general conclusions are taken from short essays which appear as boxed items every few pages in Macdonald’s account of the long hours of nightwork he devoted to observing foxes. Without two modern tools – radio-tracking equipment and night-vision binoculars – he could never have learned what he did. Even with them it was difficult, tiring, sometimes boring. For a start he had to radio-collar his foxes, and it was months before he so much as saw one, even in an area he was later to prove was thick with them. Hand-rearing a litter, and studying the behaviour of a vixen tamed to the extent that she accepted him and his wife, observing the behaviour of this vixen when she bred in a fenced-off enclosure, and the subsequent history of her offspring, gave more information.

Detailed, long-term studies like his are structured to cancel out the effects introduced by observation itself. He has also made comparisons with foxes in Israel and studied both lowland and hill foxes in Britain. The justification of the years of nights he has spent watching them is not to be measured exclusively in terms of better rabies-control strategies or more accurate statistics on lamb mortality: as far as Macdonald is concerned, the fun of doing it (which was not so far from the fun of hunting) made it worthwhile. An excitement comes through his writing which is separate from the scientific one of understanding the meaning of a piece of behaviour. On the other hand, he is so far from being sentimental that he can write warmly of the hill farmers, who hate foxes but know them, and whose interest in the animals they spend so much time trying to exterminate was shown by the assistance some of them gave him.

Macdonald has a description of watching a fox chased by hounds and, with seeming cunning, eluding them. He does not disguise his pleasure in this foxiness. That an independent carnivore as large as the fox can live almost unobserved under our suburban noses is a wonder; people who glimpse foxes report the sighting as a piece of special luck. Macdonald’s book is as interesting as accounts in the same vein of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, lions and tigers. But where those accounts leave you with a sad anxiety about the fragility of habitats, Macdonald describes an opportunist almost as successful as ourselves.