Is the fox a friend or foe?

THROUGHOUT history the fox has fascinated and inspired our imagination.As the sly schemer of fairytales or the cheeky underdog of Disney fame, the red fox has been both persecuted and venerated.

THROUGHOUT history the fox has fascinated and inspired our imagination.

As the sly schemer of fairytales or the cheeky underdog of Disney fame, the red fox has been both persecuted and venerated.

Today JAMES MARSTON reports from both sides of an ancient debate - Fox friend or foe.

FREDDY the fox of Felixstowe has hit the headlines recently.

He's been spotted weaving his way underneath tables, he's stolen tit bits and searched for scraps, he's bitten a finger and he's even posed for the camera.

Thought to have a den close to his favourite bars on Undercliff Road West, Freddy is becoming a bit of a celebrity of the seafront.

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But Freddy's presence is not entirely welcome.

Bosses at The Alex bar and restaurant put up signs urging customers not to let him on the tables or inside the venue and to shoo him away if necessary.

And it wasn't so many years ago that fox were considered vermin suitable only for shooting and disposal.

But, nowadays, with hunting with dogs banned and a surge of sympathy for the fox, what view is fair?

Is the fox a scheming opportunist that is a threat to farmers and gamekeepers or it is a valuable part of the rural and urban landscape?

Today we spark the debate with views from both a friend and a foe of the fox.

The Foe

Geoff Garrod is a gamekeeper in Essex and also the regional spokesman for the National Gamekeepers Association.

He looks after game over and area of 3,500 acres and kills from 50 to 60 foxes a year.

Geoff said: “There is a lot of misunderstanding about the fox. In the countryside it is the number one predator. It doesn't care what it kills, it will take anything that's available.

“The fox is extremely destructive and needs to be controlled.”

Geoff said dispatching foxes is part of his job.

He said: “Obviously removing the fox protects the breeding pheasants and partridges but it also gives a lot of other birds a chance like lapwing, plover, and the curlew.

“The fox kills any ground nesting birds and they need a chance to raise their chicks.”

Geoff said that when he sees a fox he considers it as the “number one vermin” of the countryside.

He added: “Controlling foxes is part of my job but the fox does have a place in the countryside. It is part of the natural landscape.

“It is not just the gamekeeper that is affected but also farmers and people with domestic fowl like chickens and geese.

“I have seen a case where a fox killed 50 chickens but took away only one and partially ate another. Foxes kill more than they need.”

Foxes also breed quickly.

Geoff said: “People don't realise that foxes need food to feed their young. It will take food wherever it can. If it isn't controlled it will rear six, seven or maybe eight cubs and the next year they would be breeding and all produce young. “That would mean 40 to 50 foxes in three to four years. People have been controlling foxes for years and they are still here. Controlling them allows other animals to breed and allows us to create a balance in the countryside.”

Geoff said that encroaching on their habitat has brought more and more foxes into the urban environment.

He said: “They are becoming more and more domesticated. People think foxes are cuddly and friendly which they can be in a town but in the countryside they are the most destructive creature.”

The Friend

MIKE Towler is a retired engineer who is passionate about foxes and enjoys friendships with a number of foxes on his Kent farm.

He said: “Foxes are caring, cooperative and lovely creatures. They are similar to people, they seek friendships, they have their own insecurities and characters and they are highly intelligent, some more than others.”

Mike said foxes are particularly caring towards the younger generation.

He said: “Any adult fox will look after any other youngster, even if they are not related in anyway. Not every animal would do that. They can also be educated to stay away from ground nesting birds like lapwings.”

Mike said he knew a farmer in Kent who had trained foxes to stay away from nests by putting steel cables over the nests and tempting the fox with putting a mousetrap underneath the cables.

He said: “The fox would put his nose under and get a nasty shock. He soon learned to keep away from the nests. If you cooperate with them they cooperate with you.

“Killing foxes has no benefit; within a week another fox will have taken over the territory.”

Furthermore, Mike said it is a myth that foxes kill for fun.

He said: “The fox doesn't kill for fun or excess if another food source is available. They'd much rather not kill. The much quoted example of foxes killing everything they find in a chicken run does happen and there is no point denying it but I suspect the fox kills the hens because of the way they react. They are totally trapped and panic and the fox kills them to stop the din.”

Mike said foxes are intelligent with built in sat nav.

He added: “I wanted to find out the truth about foxes and it is much different to the common conception. Foxes regulate their own population density.

“It has been discovered that the birth rate slows, a larger percentage of vixens are barren and litter sizes are smaller.

“Most people are totally ignorant about what they know about foxes.”

Foxes have little legal protection.

In some areas they are subjected to much persecution including shooting, hunting, being snared and dug out with terriers and caught with lurchers (fast, long-legged dogs).

Self-locking snares and gin traps, both of which were once used to catch foxes, have been outlawed. Free running snares are legal, but they must be inspected at least once a day.

These humanitarian provisions are the sole protection received by foxes.

Despite their lack of protection foxes are widespread and abundant.

The success of the fox is due to its adaptability and it is in no need of active conservation measures. In the early 1980s many foxes were killed each year for their fur, most of which was exported to West Germany. However, with the decline in fur prices, this trade has decreased substantially.

Foxes have reddish orange fur with a thick bushy tail in winter. They are the size of a small dog.

The average weight of a fox is 6 to 7kg for males and 5 to 6kg for females.

Foxes hold territories, the size of which depends on habitat. They can be as small as 0.2 square kilometres in urban areas or up to 40 square kilometres in hill country.

Each territory is occupied by a fox family group. These often consist of a pair - dog fox and vixen - and their cubs.

Foxes have a varied diet. In lowland rural areas small mammals, especially field voles and rabbits, are the major source of food, with earthworms, beetles, fruit (particularly blackberries) and small birds also being eaten.

Foxes live about one or two years.

In Britain, more than elsewhere in Europe, foxes have also adapted to life in urban surroundings.

The Fox's latin name is vulpes vulpes. It has been living in Britain since the last ice age.

Where can I get a fox as a pet?

“You should not try to keep a fox. Although appealing, small cubs grow rapidly and soon become unsuitable as pets. “They are then too tame to be returned to the wild.”

Why do foxes kill all the hens in a roost?

“This is a phenomenon called surplus killing. It is a strategy whereby foxes kill excess prey when it is abundant, and then bury (cache) it for use on days when food is short. It is not a "blood lust".”

Can I feed the foxes in my garden?

“Yes, they take most household scraps, old meat bones and so on. They will soon become very tame and be easy and enjoyable to watch.”

Do foxes kill lambs?

“Yes, but generally very few. Studies have shown that most lambs eaten are still-born or sickly, and that losses to foxes are very much lower than losses to other causes such as bad weather.”

The red fox is probably the most common predator of upland and lowland game in Britain.

Since the early 1960s, the average cull has increased fivefold.

The increase was steady until the early 1990s, after which it may have levelled off or even declined.

Fox density may have been depressed following the disappearance of their rabbit prey due to myxomatosis in the 1950s, and part of the increase may reflect the subsequent rabbit recovery.

Changes in fox control methods, particularly the use of spotlights, have undoubtedly affected the size of the cull, and the large-scale rearing and releasing of gamebirds has probably improved fox food supply.

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