Despite the near constant presence of them, there is something special about spotting a fox. During the day we can forget they exist, consider them an urban myth of our streets, but at night, the fox makes it entirely clear this is his London, his patch and he is absolutely astonished to see us trespass upon it. They can only be caught in the blue, nocturnal gaze for a moment or two, almost always in late summer (reasons for that to follow), and whilst their physical looks are not in themselves compelling, the audacity with which they present themselves is. For a second, in which he sees you before you see him, he’s got your eyeline, frozen in the clinical glare of the car light, and he crouches, one foot raised, warily staring as he pauses in his moonlit business. For, make no mistake, foxes are busy creatures, and no one else is going to undertake that night’s scavenging, you know. “You?” their eyes seem to say. “You?” The tail stands, curving daintily. “What are you doing here? I say, this really won’t do, you know. It is most irregular. I am a FOX. ” Then they’re gone. Whilst unsure how timid they are, I know they try to avoid us. There are two that live in breaks in a fence beside a public path to the woods behind our flat in Finchley. Very, very rarely I see them at night when I return to our quiet road. For some reason I like them. “Hello Fox No 1.” I whisper, as he gazes startled as this be-hatted woman in her late thirties who totters stupidly down the road after Pilates. “Evenin’ Fox No 2,” I nod. They bolt off as soon as they see me, resentfully sniffing towards the bins that are tightly lidded at the side of the house. “Spoilsport,” they seem to say. “Gissa chicken leg. I’ve got five kids.” Fox No 2 is more debonair. Probably smokes Hamlet. Has a smoking jacket. Goes ski-ing in Gstaad. You know, that kind of fox. Acts like its grandfather didn’t die of mange.
Foxes cram a life into a year. That’s because whilst in captivity a fox can live for 14 years, in London most of them will barely live to see their second birthday. Each spring a male fox will brush his tail until it gleams, whack on a splash of his chosen scent (usually Eau de Dead Dormouse) and begin stepping out with a vixen. He will produce an average 4.5 cubs in spring, but often with more than one vixen. He likes to have a couple of ladies on the go, does foxy. He is fond of keeping it in the family, often having some of his spring cubs with the sister of the vixen who has already presented him with an offspring the previous week, otherwise known as The Ryan Giggs School of Fatherhood.
So, the cubs are born in April, but by September they’e grown so much that they’re indistinguishable from their parents. The same thing happened to me in 1993. For the fox watchers, it’s June or July where we see them most, as these cubs are now fox teens, setting out to explore their territory, which often will take in up to 80 London gardens. This summer, a face suddenly popped up outside the glass doors leading to our garden, comical and inquisitive in the dark, a patchy, bushy bearded thing, staring in for a moment, presumably trying to work out whether we had any birds or worms on site. For, this is what Mr Fox eats. Only 35% of his diet is gained from scavenging; not by choice but by a recognition of labour : scavenging is hard work. Garden birds, slippery worms, squirrels and mice are easy prey. In the autumn, coming up to six months old, the foxes will set out and leave the district of their birth, and this is when it goes wrong for so many of them. 50% of foxes in the UK are killed by drivers.
They have dens. People sometimes have dens too but the kind of people who have one and say “I’m just off to relax in the den” probably have one full of menthol cigarettes and / or cigarillos, Sky Sports, Venetian blinds and leather executive style lush chairs. A fox’s den will have none of these things. Instead it will have cubs, a musty smell and that half-eaten Thai chicken curry you ordered after four Budweisers last Wednesday. The fox is a dog, but although a member of the Canidae family, as dogs are, it is vulpine, not canine. So it is a member of the wolves / coyotes / dingoes family rather than the “gosh, that’s a lovely Labrador!” family. For this reason, although not this reason alone, the English feel rather differently about foxes as they do about dogs.
The interesting thing about foxes is not actually what they are but how towndwellers choose to see them. A couple of years ago we had a brief civic disturbance in London called a riot. I wrote about it here, not really the riots as it happened, but rather the language that is chosen to culturally comment upon it (see https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/a-riotous-message/). Whilst revising Foxy this week, I realised that the language people use to describe him is merciless, and has much in common with the fears of cultural degeneracy that people express at times of social disruption or riot in urban spaces (“feral”, “populous and breeding out of control”, “Scavenger”, “robber”, “urban blight”) and I don’t suppose a certain type of person would be surprised to find their local fox wearing JD Sports footwear, stealing tellies, sporting a back to front baseball cap, and carrying a knife whilst texting on his mobile phone with his mates about the best way to loot a “Burger King”.
Why does the fox come in for so much stick? Because he’s used as a site onto which a whole range of cultural anxieties become projected and, like most manifestations of cultural anxieties, they are entirely without context. Foxes are a pest to some, a wild nuisance to others. On the other hand, dogs are sacred in Britain. And more dangerous. The chance that a fox may savage a small child is absolutely tiny when measured against the harm that dogs can do. We hear about fox attacks solely because of their rarity rather than their violence. In 2008/09, over 5,000 people were treated at hospitals for injuries caused by dogs. Over 1,300 of these were children. It is exceedingly rare for a human being to look in any way appetising to your neighbourhood fox, who is more interested in a half squished worm and a tasty robin redbreast, to be frank. Of the 3 cases that hit the headlines of a fox biting someone in the last 11 years, one was discounted as possibly being a fox bite on medical evidence and the second involved a family who tried to divert the attention from their family dog, which seems strange. A rat is more likely to bite a baby. And 10,000 foxes patrol our streets keeping the rat population in check, so it’s a bit of a win-win for your baby who is subsequently less likely to get bitten by anything at all because foxy has just knocked off a few rattus rattus’s for his elevenses.
To call a woman a “vixen” (a female fox) is to imply she is shrewish, manipulative and malicious. This is because foxes are cunning. Cunning is just another word for wily and clever, but a woman who is wily and clever is faintly mistrustful and a carnivorous cunning cow. (I don’t think men have this problem with implications of being wily and clever. They just call it being bright). The verb “fox” also has disastrous connotations for our urban friends : to trick, to fool, to baffle ; to act slyly or craftily and – oddly – to repair a shoe by replacing a new upper (to fox it). To be “foxed” is also archaic English for being drunk. Yet, there is one absolutely positive way of using fox. If you call someone a fox, or foxy, you are telling them they are incredibly sexually attractive. They will take this as a compliment. But you will get a very different reaction if you call them a “dog”. Which is what a fox is. Confused? I am.
The key to living happily alongside our wild animals is very straightforward : be sensible. Vulpes vulpes is classed as a wild animal. It’s no use getting burgled and then saying “I can’t believe it! Someone came into my house and stole my iPad when I decided to leave my garden door wide open with the lights on. Oh, the cheek of some people.” Well, it’s the same with our urban friends. Keep them outside whatever you do. And don’t fall asleep with the fire escape door open with a sign saying “Come on in and bite me, foxy”. In the exceedingly rare event of a fox biting a human being they will instantly back away after the bite, which they tend to only ever consider giving in self defence. They do not squat there salivating and gnawing saying “Mmmmm….feet. Lovely. Do you have any tabasco for this please?” like some Grimm fairy tale. Some astonished Londoners have left doors open to find a fox curled up on their sofa, having spent the evening eating the cat food. Foxes are strangely fascinated by children. They love to watch them play and, although wary of them, can spend hours sitting in hedgerows beside playgrounds just watching what’s going on. Nutters.
Foxes back away from cats generally, due to the cat’s supercilious, malignantly steely stare and sharp claws. Plus all cats have superiority complexes and think they are superheroes. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about foxes. Cats will take on anyone. They love the fox face-off. The fox will usually turn away. Dogs and foxes can exist together unless the fox really oversteps his territory, but unfortunately a large number of fox cubs are killed each year by domestic cats and dogs. 80% of fox cubs fail to reach maturity in London. Oh, and obviously : rabbit, gerbil or hamster? Fantastic Mr Fox thinks of only two things : “YUM” and “NOW, WHERE DID I PUT MY NAPKIN?”
It is legal to shoot a fox but, that’s a bit dodgy because, at the Kensington & Chelsea website helpfully points out on their fox advice page: “We do not want to encourage people to walk around our streets, gardens and parks carrying and discharging firearms”. Well, no, quite, Ken & Chelsea, unless they’re aiming at that other ginger, suave and nocturnal fox like creature, H.R.H. Prince “Nightclub Mad” Harry. This time of year you’ll hear them screaming at each other, as late-autumn is the time for fox family units to break up as the young adults head off to new horizons. It’s not mating calls. And it isn’t a fight. It’s a fox conversation. It just sounds incredibly violent, like someone is pulling a cat to shreds, but it’s actually a fox shouting “Phone your mother once a month, at least!” sort of thing.
Another urban myth is that foxes “rifle” through bins, which is something they actually never do. Badgers are bastards for this, as are cats and sea gulls, particularly if there’s a lovely bin liner to rip. A sea gull think’s that’s a holiday. But foxes – very rarely. An average fox weighs about 6kgs. Do you think if you weighed 6 kg you could manage to knock a full London Borough of Barnet wheelie bin over? No.
The idea of separating out the country fox from its ruthless, mangy urban cousin is wrong. A fox is a fox is a fox. They are all the red fox vulpes vulpes. There is no significant physical distinction and they do not vary in hunting practices. Researchers noted in the 1990s that a family of fox cubs born in central Bristol relocated themselves to rural arcadia and spent their lives grazing on the Mendip Hills. Nor are the numbers of urban foxes on the increase : the fox community has yet to recover from the 1990s sarcoptic mange epidemic which wiped a huge number of them out, and whilst London is home to 33,000 foxes, about the same levels as in the 1980s, the countryside has got a quarter of a million of them. And thanks to the abolition of fox hunting, they are flourishing.
The finest fox that ever was was Basil Brush. He was a sort of vulpes Terry Thomas who repeatedly referred to himself in the third person as “fella”. He had his own television show for 13 years, which is almost unheard of for a fox, and was very good at singing and acting. He was also the first puppet to win The Weakest Link.
Those of your interested in more information about fox protection can have a look at : http://www.foxproject.org.uk/about-us/
Thank you for reading The London Bluebird. This blog is updated fortnightly so we look forward to seeing you on October 24th.