Love them or loathe them, foxes are a part of the urban landscape, yet as much as you may want to get rid of them, have you ever stopped to wonder how different London would be without them?
Red foxes have been top predators in Britain since wolves were hunted to extinction, according to London Wildlife Trust. This means that they are at the top of the urban wildlife food chain. In other terms, nothing hunts them.
Foxes usually eat the extra food lying about that would also support the mice population.
There are two species of rat in the UK: the sleek black rat and the larger, more numerous brown rat but neither is native. They arrived on the UK shores as stowaways from Asia, and have scattered across the country.
Foxes are one of the most recognisable wild animals in Britain. These wily animals are extraordinarily adaptable and as at home in urban and suburban areas as they are in the countryside.
There are many species of fox thriving around the world. The most widespread is the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), considered to be the first and most common non-domestic carnivore in cities all around the world.
Discover what makes urban spaces so appealing to the iconic red-furred fox.
What do urban foxes eat?
Foxes are part of the Canidae family – the same group as wolves and domestic dogs. Foxes are categorised as carnivores (sitting within the order Carnivora) but will eat almost anything.
Rural red fox diets are around 95% meat and supplemented with insects, worms and fruit. In urban areas, meat only makes up around half of their diets, the other half being household refuse.
Red foxes seem to be as at home in urban areas as they are in the countryside
Foxes have developed strong stomachs and immune systems, so they’re unlikely to be affected by rotting food waste. Urban foxes principally scavenge for food, but when they hunt, it is for birds or small mammals such as rats and mice, helping to keep rodent numbers under control.
The Fox Project, a UK-based charity dedicated to protecting the red fox, state that in 26 years of work and 12,000 foxes rescued, they are ‘yet to find a starving adult fox’.
Where do urban foxes live?
Foxes dig out dens to provide a safe underground area that is mostly used for raising fox cubs, also called kits. In urban regions, the rooms – known as piles of the earth – are commonly located under sheds, but they can also be among tree roots, in bushes or on railway embankments.
Foxes will visit these burrows throughout the year for shelter, although you may also spot them relaxing out in the open during summer.
In the warmer months, you may spot foxes relaxing out in the sunshine
Becoming city dwellers
Foxes have been documented in Britain’s southern urban areas since the 1930s. The expansion of these areas during the interwar period created an ideal new habitat with an abundance of food.
The number of foxes living across the UK isn’t officially recorded. However, a 2013 report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) estimates that there are around 430,000 – roughly one fox for every 150 people in the UK.
The number in urban areas is thought to have increased from 33,000 in 1995 to 150,000 in 2017. However, in 2018 there was a 42% decline in red foxes in Britain, although the cause is unknown.
Fox populations are self-regulating, with attempted culls proving unsuccessful. In the 1970s, London boroughs were responsible for their resident foxes. In Bromley, a fox-control officer killed 300 foxes a year but made no dent in the population. Urban fox control was abandoned in the 1980s.
If you remove a fox from an area, their territory will be claimed by another within a matter of days. Removing foxes also usually results in a larger breeding population the next year.
Foxes are resourceful in exploiting new territories. In 2011, as the Shard skyscraper was being built in London, a fox moved in on the seventy-second floor, surviving on food scraps left by workers.
Why do foxes scream?
Foxes are perhaps best known for their ‘screams’, which are mostly heard at night when the animals are most active.
The high-pitched wails are made by vixens (female foxes), mostly in the breeding season, which begins in January.
It has been suggested that the screams are sounds of pain when foxes are locked together during mating, but this is an urban myth. The screams are the females trying to summon a mate.
When do foxes have cubs?
Most foxes are born in March in litters of around four to five cubs. The baby foxes remain with their mother for approximately two weeks, so during this period, she is fed by other members of the social group.
The kits emerge from the ground in April and at around seven months old have reached their adult size. Some vixens will have their first litter at the age of one.
City living is tough
Wild red foxes generally live up to nine years. However, on average, foxes only survive between one and three years.
The most common cause of fox deaths in road accidents, particularly for males and younger animals as they start exploring and disperse from a breeding site from August to December. Some cubs will remain with their family group for their whole life, however.
Do foxes carry diseases?
You may have noticed your local foxes looking a little rough around the edges. That could be seasonal moulting, or it may be something more troublesome for the fox.
Sarcoptic disease, also known as canine scabies, is caused by the parasitic mite Sarcoptes ‘scabei canis’. It is highly contagious between foxes and dogs but treatable. The mites can be passed to humans, but they can’t complete their life cycle on a non-canine host.
The mite burrows into the fox’s skin, causing lesions and the iconic red fur to fall out. This leaves bald patches, whereas when the animal moults for summer, the new coat is already visible beneath.
Without treatment, mange lesions can lead to secondary infections that can be fatal in extreme cases.
In some parts of the world, foxes carry rabies. In the UK and most of Europe, the rabies virus has been eradicated in all animals, except some species of bat. According to Public Health England, the last non-bat case of rabies in the UK was in 1902.
Sarcoptic disease is caused by parasitic mites that burrow into a fox’s skin.
Foxes can also carry toxoplasmosis, a common parasitic infection. While foxes can’t pass this infection to humans, we can become infected, most commonly through exposure to infected cat faeces. Although toxoplasmosis has little effect on humans, in foxes it can dramatically alter behaviour, such as reduce fear and aggression levels, which foxes rely on for survival in the wild.
Foxes can be wonderful to watch in the garden, and many people enjoy observing ‘their’ foxes, particularly as cubs become more active.
Dawn Scott at the University of Brighton has been studying urban foxes and their interactions with people. She saw fox feeding is prevalent in several metropolitan areas, presenting many people with a valued interaction with wildlife.
Foxes can become very reliant on regular feeding, so it is best not to do it often or with large quantities of probably unsuitable food. But putting the occasional fresh egg out on a dish and watching it in the evening or even putting a trail camera out to watch after dark can generate beautiful sightings.
Foxes are scavengers and are seen by some as pests. Our gardens are appealing to foxes because they offer food and shelter. If you’d prefer they don’t hang around for too long, humane deterrents are the best choice.
It’s best to keep food waste in safe bins. Scavenging foxes can easily rip their way into containers left out in the open, making a mess.
Foxes can squeeze through even a 12-centimetre gap. To stop them from entering your property, keep garages, ground-floor windows, doors and cat flaps closed at night.
Don’t try to fill in gaps in garden fences or walls as these can be important wildlife corridors for other urban wildlife, including hedgehogs. Foxes are also excellent climbers so it would make little to no difference to a fox entering a garden. Small pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and birds, could make an easy meal for a hungry fox. If you leave your pets outside, they should be kept in secured pens and cages. Chicken wire is not strong enough to keep out a fox.
To prevent foxes claiming your garden as their territory, there are non-toxic animal repellents you can use. Only those approved for use against foxes as other repellents can be damaging to other wildlife in the garden.
After earning my Economics degree from the Royal Holloway University of London, I entered the media publishing world to explore my passion for creative writing, journalism and discover the best social media marketing strategies. I am the creator of Only in London, where I'm focused on writing blogs, reporting exciting news stories in London, and marketing it all around.