In which I learn some things about foxes
It was in Holmsley…that I witnessed a wonderful act of valour, the hero of which was a fox.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
I’ve been away staying with family in London, where I’ve been delighted to watch foxes visiting their suburban garden. I thought it would be interesting to find out a little more about urban foxes and how they compare with their country cousins, like those I see here in the New Forest.
I’d neglected to take Joan Begbie’s Walking in the New Forest away with me, but I knew she mentioned foxes a handful of times. So, having arrived home and refreshed my memory of what she wrote, I decided it would be a good subject for this week’s post. There’s therefore no walk to describe this week, and Joan’s two dogs, Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr. Bundy, a diminutive griffon, will be disgruntled; they will have to wait another week for a good tramp across the New Forest. (However, Bill in particular is always getting his nose to the ground scenting foxes and other wildlife, so he may not be too vexed.)
Before moving closer to the countryside, first to Cornwall and then to the New Forest, my main engagement with foxes was in south-east London, where I grew up and then worked. I knew them as night howlers screaming outside my bedroom window and as raiders of bins. Walking home from the station late on a winter evening I would sometimes meet a fox as it trotted across an empty road, glowing an otherworldly russet-red under a streetlight. I would pause, the fox would stare for several seconds, sizing me up, and then lope away unhurriedly and unfazed, slinking into a hedge or behind a building.
Urban foxes are bold, and I love them. One had a den under some discarded iron sheeting behind my house in Forest Hill, and in the spring I could sit for ages watching the vixen and her cubs play. Those that visit the garden of my sister and brother-in-law in south London belong to a family group that live in the playing fields beyond the stream running behind their house. Two come at night to feed on peanuts left for the birds, and another (one of last year’s cubs, my sister thinks) visits in the early evening. She lies, bold as brass, on the lawn in the hope of food to take away and cache (like many people, my sister feeds the foxes because she loves watching them, but is careful to follow advice, such as this).
Country foxes are more timid in their interactions with humans. Each of the times when, out on a walk, I have met a rural fox’s stare (which hasn’t happened often – I suspect they see me far more often than I see them), the fox has been up and away within a second, moving much more quickly and with far less nonchalance than its town cousins.
Only once did I manage to observe one for longer. I was sitting quietly in one of my favourite places in the New Forest, by the side of Dockenswater where it runs along the edge of Anses Wood. I had my eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the forest. On opening my eyes, the first thing I saw, not far to my left where the stream bends round, was a fox; a dog-fox, I think, from his build, healthy and strong. I must have been downwind of him, as he was clearly unaware I was there, and I managed to stay still for a short while. Then I moved slightly to ease a cramp; his head whipped round and he noticed me. Our eyes met for no more than a second, and in a flash he was off, back across the water and over the heath and away into the distance.
Urban foxes are such a familiar part of city life these days. Interestingly, though, Joan Begbie is unlikely to have been particularly aware of their existence when she was writing Walking in the New Forest in the early 1930s. This isn’t because she lived in the country. It’s simply that urban foxes were barely known at the time. The rapid expansion of suburban areas round cities and towns, particularly in southern England, in the interwar years of the twentieth century opened up a whole new area of habitat that foxes could exploit; the foxes already living there either adapted to the new set up or others moved in from the countryside.
Although there are always some uncertainties around numbers, the most recent estimates are that the total UK fox population (Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes) is around 430,000, of which some 150,000 are urban dwellers; you can read this article for a detailed explanation of how numbers have been estimated over the years. A recent study showed that numbers of urban foxes appear to have been growing in northern cities but are now stable in the south having achieved the maximum sustainable density: Bournemouth, interestingly, has the largest concentration. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the number of urban foxes grew, there were some attempts to cull them by local authorities, all unsuccessful; fox populations (both urban and rural) are largely self-regulating – cull a fox, and another will take its place.
I find foxes intriguing because of this brilliant ability to exploit opportunities. People often anthropomorphise this as ‘cunning’ or even ‘wickedness’, something that has been repeated through the ages, from the fables of Aesop and the mediaeval Reynard tales to the Brer Fox stories of the American South. But they’re neither deliberately cunning nor wicked; rather, they have an amazing ability to adapt to different conditions and situations. Rural foxes dig earths, while urban foxes make their dens under sheds or in railway embankments. Rural foxes are primarily hunters, with a diet of 95% meat, and insects, fruit and worms making up the rest. Urban foxes have a diet of closer to 50% meat, with the rest made up by scavenging.
Another of Joan Begbie’s fox sketches from ‘Walking in the New Forest’. This is a rural fox, on the trail of some enticing prey.
This online article from the Natural History Museum’s website includes a comparison of urban and rural foxes. I learned some new things. For example, urban foxes are no more likely than rural foxes to suffer malnutrition or be unhealthy; sarcoptic mange affects both urban- and country- dwelling individuals, and is not related to urban scavenging activity. Social group dynamics (foxes form hierarchical family groups of two to six) operate in the same way across city and rural areas. Read this study report to discover that the famous ‘boldness’ (more scientifically speaking, this is low neophobia, i.e. reduced wariness of novel situations) of urban foxes varies according to social status and personality – foxes, just like us, are individuals.
I believe that Joan would have been fascinated by urban foxes and the way they have adapted so well to city living. I’m sure she would have been delighted, as was I, by the tale of the fox that moved on to the 72nd floor of the Shard in London in 2011, while it was still being constructed, surviving happily on food scraps left by the builders.
Joan was a fox hunting woman in her earlier days, but she also clearly admired foxes as individual creatures. The quotation from Walking in the New Forest at the top of this post is from her description of a fox being hunted by hounds in Holmsley in the New Forest.
He [the fox] was in a bad case, having gone to earth within easy reach of the means for digging him out…when with glorious courage the fox leapt out into the air, flung himself backwards over the top of the ruined earth within a few yards of the assembled pack, and sped off into the friendly bushes……At the first note of the scandalised hounds the horses were fighting to be off, and their riders struggling to get the reins back over their heads and fling themselves into the saddle all at the same time. I am glad to say that Dan Russell [the name of the fox in a 1911 book by Violet Martin and Edith Somerville], having cast the enclosure behind him, raced across the moors and went securely to ground again in a nice stony bit where he was left to rest on his laurels.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Well done, fox, I think. Joan obviously thought so, too, even though I’m guessing she was riding with the hunt on this occasion herself. She and I would, I believe, have had some good discussions about foxes, and hunting in particular. I am firmly of the anti-fox hunting persuasion, and it’s interesting (and I’m pleased) that this was also true of Joan in later life. In her 1964 book The Seal Summer, Nina Warner Hooke wrote of meeting Joan, who would have been in her sixties. Joan by then had lived many years in Worth Matravers in Dorset, in a house called Seale Cottage, from where she bred a strain of Jack Russell terriers (called the Seale Cottage strain). Nina Warner Hooke wrote that “Accompanied by her little pack of Jack Russell terriers, she [Joan] is a familiar sight in the hills and coves of the Isle of Purbeck”, and goes on to add:
In her unregenerate days, as she puts it, Joan Begbie was herself a hunting woman. In her sixties, she finds the pursuit of animals for sport a repugnant business. She will sometimes take her little pack to the aid of a farmer whose chicken runs have been persistently raided by a rogue fox or badger, but insists that when the quarry is routed from its lair it must be shot. She will not allow it to be killed by the pack.Nina Warner Hooke, The Seal Summer, first published in 1964
I’ll finish with a short extract from Walking in the New Forest.
We were told of one Forest farmer whose poultry refuse to shelter in the safe houses he provides for them and prefer to roost in the trees from whose boughs they can easily be wheedled by the average fox. To scare the fox away the farmer had perforce to hang the trees with lamps, which must make the little holding look very charming when the moon is up.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
I’m not sure that strategy would work on an urban fox, used as they are to streetlights and other illuminations, but Joan’s description is an enchanting picture of hens roosting cosily among lamplit branches, while a disconsolate and disappointed fox slopes away. I’m sure Aesop could have made a fable out of it.
With many thanks to Anne Carwardine, author and historian, who found me the description of the meeting with Joan Begbie in The Seal Summer by Nina Warner Hooke, published in 1964.