Is it time to declare war on the urban fox? - Veterinary Practice
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Is it time to declare war on the urban fox?

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

THE recent attack on twin babies by a fox in a London suburb has captured the imagination of Fleet Street copywriters. A wide range of opinions has been expressed (some more informed than others) ranging from the need to declare war on the urban fox through to doing nothing at all to limit their numbers.

The local council it seems captured a few foxes in the vicinity in a “humane” trap, and sacrificed them to the court of public opinion.

Urban foxes are, of course, nothing new. What is relatively new is the anecdotally high population densities of urban foxes that now occur in many cities.

Seeing a fox in a city was once something worth remarking on. Now, in many areas, everyone seems to have their own resident vulpine – sunbathing on top of the potting shed, or raising its cubs under the wall at the foot of the garden.

The aforementioned attack is,of course,extremely rare (perhaps unprecedented), which is why it has received so much media coverage. It is also fairly typical that knee-jerk views have been expressed which have more to do with emotion than rational thought.

As other commentators before me have said, many, many more children have been, and will continue to be, injured by pet dogs every month than will be injured by foxes in a hundred years. Calling for a war on pet dogs is not, though, likely to receive much public support whereas a war on foxes may well do in some quarters.

Foxes are not naturally animals of towns for very good reason. Towns as we know them are a very recent invention in evolutionary terms and foxes quite clearly have evolved to live in the countryside.

Until relatively recent times, anyone who kept livestock in a town in the form of chickens or rabbits for food would have taken very proactive measures to destroy the occasional fox who decided to see what the metropolis could offer him.

Gin traps, snares and poison would probably have been the methods of choice and there would probably have been plenty of hard-bitten men around with hard-bitten terriers who would have been only too pleased to be called in for a bit of unofficial fox control on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Different situation

The situation now is very different. Most people who live in towns do not keep chickens(although there is currently a growing trend in this direction from the so called “good-lifers”); the previously mentioned methods of control have largely been outlawed; and most people would have no idea about how to go about controlling foxes on their own initiative even if they had the inclination to do so, which most of them don’t.

Taking all the above into account, plus the vast quantity of food that is wasted everyday (much of which is discarded in the street or in insecure bins), and one can see why Reynard or Charlie, as he is variously known, has taken up the city lifestyle.The question now being posed is what if anything should we humans be doing about it?

The fox is,of course,at the top of the food chain with no natural predators in the UK other than man. The limiting factors on population growth for such animals are,inevitably, food supply, disease, the availability of places to shelter and breed, and the mental and physiological effects of any overcrowding.

Since food is more or less unlimited in the city at present, as are places to shelter and breed, disease is currently the only realistic check on numbers as overcrowding appears already to have occurred with no apparent untoward effect on breeding success.

So,do we let nature take its course and see just how many foxes can eventually be supported, or should we have some sort of management plan to maintain the urban fox population at an acceptable level, whatever an acceptable level is deemed to be? There is a whole range of issues (both practical and ethical) that need to be explored before we can come up with a rational answer to this question.

The reasons for man controlling the numbers of any particular animal broadly fall into one of three categories: they are pests that have a detrimental effect on human health and survival; they are pests that have a detrimental effect on another species that merits protection; or they are so common and over crowded that their numbers have an adverse welfare effect on their own species.

The first category is most easily illustrated by the brown rat which can spread disease to humans and despoil large quantities of our own food supply.The second category could perhaps be illustrated by the magpie because of its predation on songbirds and, in the countryside, gamebirds.

The third category of animals is more difficult to identify but as an example some would argue that the population of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is too high to be sustained by the available grazing and that the welfare problems of starvation need to be addressed by increased culling.

Where does the fox fit into any of these categories? Not terribly neatly. For the reasons already described, they are hardly a risk to human health (the attack on the babies was“out of character”), though if Echinococcus multilocularis ever becomes established in the UK this could change.

In the urban environment they do not really have a major impact on other species,although it now comes to light that caged pets such as rabbits are not infrequently predated.

Controlling them for the benefit of their own welfare? Well, fox mange certainly appears cyclically and has a very debilitating effect on foxes and hence on their welfare.Mange epidemics are more likely to occur when population density is high and so the argument for fox control could be made. But it is not necessarily an argument that would readily gain public support.

The urban fox situation is, therefore,something of a dilemma for the authorities.Should something be done and if so on what grounds?If something should be done, how will it be achieved and what would be considered the end point or would it be on-going? How would the majority of the public be brought onside in the event of action being taken?

It brings to mind the issue of culling badgers and I cannot see the Government wanting to open another can of worms with“urban fox control” written on it. I await any developments with interest.

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