Urban foxes are sometimes in the news as they get noticed with their roaming through urban gardens, and occasionally entering houses. Indeed, attacks on people and pets have been reported. More often foxes come to attention when people are disturbed at the night by the strange, ‘metallic' screams of the foxes, especially during their mating system (December through to February). There are significant numbers of foxes in our cities. Estimates vary but it is thought that there may be 150,000 or more urban foxes or ‘townies’ and perhaps 400,000 foxes in total throughout the U.K. The average life of an urban fox has been estimated at about eighteen months to two years, partly because many are killed on the roads (often the younger foxes). In the wild, a fox can live for up to 8 years.
In Scotland, a fox’s territory can range over several miles but in towns their territories are much smaller. They survive, in part, because we are careless in terms of the disposal of our waste food; and also because some people put out food for foxes. In the country, their diet would include small mammals, bird eggs, insects, earthworms, wild fruits / berries and carrion. It has been suggested that the high populations of rats and mice in London are a 'big draw' for urban foxes, and they help in keeping numbers of rats down in the city.
Foxes usually shelter (and breed) in an ‘earth or den’, which is generally below ground. However, in urban situations, they will often live underneath sheds and other outbuildings. They tend to live in family groups with a dominant female (vixen), a male (dog) and some subordinate vixens – which may be the young from the previous year. As in the wild, urban foxes will kill small mammals – in towns and cities these may be rabbits and guinea pigs; but also chickens if 'available'.
Fox populations were severely affected by sarcoptic mange in the 1990's. This is a skin condition caused by a mite (small, spider like animal), which can cause significant hair loss. It can be passed on to pet cats and dogs. Foxes may also have parasites such as the round worm Toxocara canis and the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus. These also occur in dogs and the worm eggs can be transferred between the different hosts of the worm(s).
Foxes are now well established in towns and cities, being attracted to the large gardens associated with some houses / properties as well as the readily available food. The fox is not the only animal to have made the 'transition' from rural to urban living.
Some bumble bees are now common in urban and sub-urban gardens, finding a more varied supply of flowers and nectar than the countryside. Agriculture supports large acreages of monocultures but there has been a reduction in the last few decades in the numbers of field and hedgerow flowers. Swifts, which traditionally found nesting places in cliffs, crags, hollow trees, now make use of many urban buildings. Herring gulls can be found at rubbish tips across the country, and can be a significant problem in some areas . The use of brown field sites within towns and cities for the construction of houses, flats, affordable homes may well result in the decline of some urban species. In recent years, some birds species (like the sparrow) have declined in urban / sub-urban areas.
‘Dealing’ with foxes is not easy. The most effective deterrent is ensuring that there is a high fence around the garden – advice on various forms of fencing is available from the Natural England archives. It is also important to make sure that no food is available e.g. from bird tables (have a covered table at least 5ft above the ground), clear away fruit that falls to the ground, and make sure that all refuse / waste containers are secure.