Attitudes to foxes: Common myths

False myths about foxes are common. Here you will find a selection of the most common ones and, for each myth, the facts available to disprove them:

TopMost people hate foxes

False: The majority of people like foxes. In a survey about wildlife in their garden completed by nearly 4000 household across Britain, 65.7% liked urban foxes, 25.8% had no strong views and only 8.5% disliked urban foxes. In a recent survey by The Mammal Society, foxes were voted one of the most popular British mammals.

TopFoxes kill for pleasure

A cockerel on a fence
A cockerel

False: This accusation is untrue: foxes do not kill for fun. Most animals need to find food every day to survive. Some nights are better than others in terms of food for a fox so, given the opportunity, foxes will always kill surplus food and cache (bury) it, to eat on another night when hunting is less good. This is a very successful strategy for surviving in the wild.

However, when a fox breaks into a hen house it is surrounded by easily caught prey. Its normal behaviour, and a good survival strategy is to kill all prey available and try to cache it. Given the option, the fox will come back for the remaining corpses and cache them. The solution is easy: securely house your animals.

TopFoxes will breed with my dog

A collie pup
Foxes and dogs do not mate

False: Foxes and dogs are different species and cannot hybridize. Even if a dog and fox were to mate, there could not be any offspring as their chromosome numbers are different.

Moreover, the breeding season of the fox is very short, a few weeks in winter and outside this short period, female foxes are not fertile.

 

TopFoxes moved into British cities because they were starving

False: It is sometimes said that, following the epidemic of myxomatosis which decimated rabbit populations in the British countryside in th early 1950s, foxes were starving because their main prey had disappeared and, as a result, moved into the cities. This statement is wrong. Firstly, foxes were present in many cities before the epidemic of myxomatosis. Secondly, foxes adapt easily and a study in rural areas of Britain following myxomatosis showed that they were including more field voles in their diets.

TopAre large numbers of urban foxes dumped in the countryside?

False: This is a modern myth. The story goes that large numbers of urban foxes are being released into the countryside and that these were clearly urban foxes because they were all mangy and/or could not hunt properly and were starving and/or were very tame and/or had very short claws from running around on pavements.

A fox caught in a boxtrap
It may take hundreds of trapping days to catch a fox; © C. Soulsbury

Trapping urban foxes is very time consuming, taking up to a hundred days trapping per fox, depending on the time of year. So catching a large number of foxes would take a very long time.

The released foxes are identified as "urban" because they are mangy. Mange is no more common in urban than rural fox populations. Also, the foxes are said not to be able to hunt in the countryside. Another myth: foxes born in cities regularly disperse into the countryside, where they are able to feed themselves. Also, whilst urban foxes can be quite tame (many are not), the same is true of young rural foxes. That is why most foxes shot and trapped by gamekeepers tend to be youngsters that have not yet learnt to be wary of people. As for urban foxes having shorter claws from walking around on pavements, they spend most of their time in gardens, not on pavements, and their claws look no different to those of rural foxes.

TopHas anyone ever been caught dumping urban foxes into the countryside?

No: despite substantial rewards having been offered both by animal welfare charities and individuals for information leading to the identity of anyone said to be involved, no one has ever been caught. The story usually goes that someone knows someone who saw a man with a van full of foxes, which were being released somewhere in the countryside. Despite numerous such stories, no one has ever even recorded the van number!

Nor has anyone been caught trapping foxes for release into the countryside. Catching a van load of foxes would take a long time, and you need somewhere to hold them before they are released. Foxes are smelly and noisy, not easy to hide, yet no one has ever been found with a shed full of caged foxes waiting for release. So the whole story defies any logic.

TopHave foxes been released into the countryside in the past?

Over twenty years ago, when some local authorities undertook fox control, a few did trap a small number of foxes in towns and release them (one at a time) into the surrounding countryside. However, they soon stopped doing this. There are press reports of the occasional private pest control company still releasing one or two of the foxes they have been paid to trap. Whilst few animals are involved, it is still highly irresponsible, and does their customers no favours: foxes will home over very long distances. One radio-collared vixen who was released 56 kilometres away was back home in just twelve days. So released foxes may quickly return to where they were caught.

A pack of fox hounds looking to the left of the picture
Fox hounds; © M. Hart

However, the big releases into the countryside occurred in the early 1800s, soon after modern hunting had been developed by Hugo Meynell. There was a shortage of foxes for hunting, and so there was a thriving trade importing foxes from the continent for sale at Leadenhall Market in London. Some of these imports were even young wolves. Foxes were also caught in Scotland and Wales, where there were few mounted hunts, for sale to English packs. These foxes were called "bagmen" and were often recaptured, to be hunted again on another day. To preserve fox numbers, hunts also recompensed farmers for losses caused by foxes, and paid gamekeepers for each litter of cubs reared on their land. This led to a significant increase in fox numbers in the latter part of the 1800s, and is one reason why hunts claim that, if it was not for them, foxes would have been eliminated in many parts of Britain.

References

  • Baker, P.J., Harris, S., Robertson, C.P.J., Saunders, G. & White, P.C.L. (2001) Differences in the capture rate of cage-trapped red foxes Vulpes vulpes and an evaluation of rabies control measures in Britain. Journal of Applied Ecology 38, 823-835.
  • Harris, S. & Baker, P. (2001) Urban foxes. Whittet Books, Suffolk.
  • Soulsbury, C.D., Iossa, G., Baker, P.J., Cole, N.C., Funk, S.M. & Harris, S. (2007) The impact of sarcoptic mange Sarcoptes scabiei on the British fox Vulpes vulpes population. Mammal Review 37, 278-296.