BY ROGER WATSON
Over twenty years ago when I lived with my family in the halls of residence at The University of Edinburgh the best time of the year was the Christmas break when the students went home. Only a handful of families who served as wardens remained and we had twenty two frosty acres, under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat to ourselves. One evening when I was out walking, I stopped to speak to a colleague. We were soon joined by a fox which sat down between us, partly sitting on my foot, and stared up at us. Despite exhorting the students not to feed the foxes, of which there were many on the campus, they did, and the foxes became like pets. Outside our lodge we had a vixen almost permanently located in the bushes. At times, the smell was unbearable in addition to some blood-curdling screams at night.
We paid the price at one point for the tameness of the foxes as one vixen entered a broken wall vent and gave birth under the floor boards of the administration building (as it happens, the original St Trinian’s School immortalised by Ronald Searle) and the subsequent smell was unbearable. Some women, on whom the smell seemed to have a greater effect than men, had to be allowed to take time off work. We were powerless to fix the situation. Apparently, foxes cannot be disturbed by law in Scotland while cubs are being raised. Thus, the fox’s tail was wagging the dog of the university. This was not my final close encounter with foxes.
According to Wildlife Online the “British fox population is around 430,000 animals, while a recent analysis from Brighton University suggests about 150,000 of these live in towns and cities.” Prior to living in Edinburgh, we lived near Dulwich in London. Driving home along Dulwich Common late one evening as we turned a bend our headlights scanned the common. What we saw was breath taking as, literally, hundreds of pairs of eyes reflected back at us from the—presumably—hundreds of foxes on the common. Over the years they became even more prominent and concomitantly became an increasing menace. Bins were toppled and the contents strewn across streets and pavements. While rare, it is not unknown for foxes to attack humans and they have certainly attacked babies.
Fast forward to the past twenty years when we have lived in Kingston upon Hull. I am unable to locate figures for our urban foxes in Hull, but we have a thriving population. Any early riser, runner or shift worker will report regular sightings of foxes and they become increasingly confident. In our last house, a three-storey town house, it was quite entertaining to watch foxes from the top floor move about the back gardens, easy to spot as they activated the security lights. Evidence of their activity was everywhere with ripped bin bags, trails of debris and their compact black stools deposited on the lawn. If the kids trailed this into the house, then a major job of decontamination ensued. We never fed the foxes, but some neighbours did.
Our entertainment by the foxes abruptly ceased one Christmas. Property is relatively cheap in Hull, and we had an enormous garden, part of which was dedicated to our small team of ducks. We were self-sufficient in duck eggs, we sold them (probably illegally) at our open garden days and many neighbours, teachers and family were regularly supplied with duck eggs. You probably know what is coming. Early one winter morning we emerged to a scene of carnage on the lawn and in the duck pen. Duck heads littered our garden and, as we subsequently learned, our neighbours’ gardens. We located all the bodies, the foxes had neither eaten nor removed any. Well fed on the spoils of their urban feasting, this was simply sport for them. I had delayed filling in a hole that was appearing outside the duck pen and a fox, or perhaps several of them, had burrowed in.
We were upset at the loss of our ducks, which we never replaced and the younger children who helped to look after them were distraught. Hardly surprising. But what astonished me was the reaction of our fox-feeding neighbours, some of whom had benefited from free duck eggs. Essentially, nobody gave a hoot, not a single word of sympathy for us or our ducks. While I was advocating a vigilante squad to go out to the lanes behind our houses (the so called ‘ten foots’ which are unique to Hull) where the foxes lived and dispatching them, people were horrified. Perhaps my reaction and suggested course of action was somewhat hastily formulated, and possibly illegal. I must admit that my sympathy grew for the lawyer who clubbed a fox to death; had I cornered one I might have been tempted to do the same. But the true nature of the fox, which is a real and present danger to livestock, urban or rural, had been impressed on me. These animals are a menace and the necessity to control their numbers is obvious and pressing.
During lockdown, when restaurants were closed and food bins were empty, foxes began to be more visible during the day. One particularly large male used to walk nonchalantly down our avenue, hardly missing a step if a car or a pedestrian appeared. We have since moved house within the city, but evidence of foxes abounds. Their droppings litter the front lawn and the pavements. There are only two legal ways of killing urban foxes, either by shooting or trapping and injecting. I must admit that shooting may be a tad dangerous in an urban environment and I can well imagine animal rights activists—code for people with unfulfilled lives and too much time on their hands—sabotaging traps. It seems that trying to control the urban fox is a losing battle not helped by BBC Wildlife telling people it is OK to feed them. It certainly seems to be one we have given up fighting in urban environments. You can rest assured that, had foxes been identified as super-spreaders of Covid-19 we would have come up with an extermination programme tout suite.
Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.