May 7, 2006

Foxes Thrive in Urban Britain

LONDON - As it prowls its habitat among the homes of the rich in London's Belgravia district, one red fox has become a fixture.

"I saw him just the other day, in Chester Street, and he is very friendly," said Baron Selsdon, a member of the House of Lords. "He lives very well around the properties owned by the Duke of Westminster."

Far to the north, Albert Hillel has watched with delight as generations of cubs have grown up in his garden in suburban Manchester.

"If the fox was a man, I think he would be the kind of man you would like your daughter to marry," says the retired academic, who has written a book based on 20 years of observing the urban fox. "He is clever, reliable, a good provider - and he doesn't seek a fight."

Since the 1930s, when the common red fox - Vulpes vulpes - started coming to town, Britons have learned to live with a creature whose country cousins were hunted with hounds until the sport was banned last year.

Government officials say foxes kill pets, dig up flower beds for worms, raid trash and scream during the mating season. But conservation groups say the human-fox partnership works fine. A 2001 survey by the Mammal Society found that 80 percent of Londoners like having foxes around.

They are seen all over the nation's capital, usually at night. A fox was spotted just last month on the sidewalk outside Prime Minister Tony Blair's official residence at 10 Downing St. A decade ago, a fox got into the garden of Buckingham Palace and killed eight of the queen's pink flamingos.

As Parliament debated restricting fox hunting, Selsdon had occasion to regale fellow lords with news of the Belgravia fox, and of scruffier ones that haunt the street crossing where the Beatles were photographed for the "Abbey Road" album.

Conservationists estimate up to 30,000 foxes roam urban Britain, lured by the burgeoning suburbs with their gardens and generous trash cans.

"It's as though they've decided they'll share our niche: we have it during the day and they have it at night," muses Hillel in his book, "The Suburban Timeshare."

While many people admire and even feed them, others regard them as pests.

"They may have a cuddly reputation, but foxes are vermin - they carry disease and there is a fear that they could bite children," Selsdon said. "The Belgravia fox lives in some style, but now he's got mange."

He believes urban fox numbers are rising and need a cull.

The Mammal Research Unit at Bristol University says urban fox-populated areas reached capacity years ago and numbers remain stable.

British law does not classify foxes as vermin, but allows them to be trapped and shot in urban areas.

Foxes really are smart - they easily evade traps, and nature adjusts their breeding patterns to make up for culls.

London authorities tried shooting them. "They had to abandon it, because it did nothing to change fox populations," said Graziella Iossa of the Mammal Research Unit.

Still, pest controllers offer to dispose of foxes, for a fee. Some shoot them, but John Bryant believes in humane methods - repellant chemicals, water jets or dog scents.

"Foxes have a really bad press," said Bryant. "They will only bite if provoked and there are no authenticated cases of them attacking children. All they want is somewhere quiet to raise their cubs."

At the Fox Project, volunteers scoop up and treat some 500 injured foxes a year in southern England, about two-thirds of them from urban areas, director Trevor Williams said.

"Each one is different, they all have their own personalities," he said.

He fondly recalls Bluebell, a vixen from Swanley in Kent county that lost a hind leg after a car knocked her down. "She's gone on to have a great career, had a couple of litters of pups," he said.

In fact, Vulpes vulpes is doing fine globally.

"Red foxes are widely spread across the world, except for South America and Antarctica, and they are found in many urban areas," said Doug Inkley, senior science adviser to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation in Washington.

"As we have altered our habitat, they have found it quite to their liking."