The red fox (vulpes vulpes) is the most widespread carnivore (meat-eater) in the world, being found now on almost every continent in the northern hemisphere, as well as in Australia.
The last one I saw oversees was in the Alaskan arctic while I was filming snowy owls for the BBC series Frozen Planet. It was a bit of a surprise because I had been expecting only to see Arctic foxes that far north but we never saw a single Arctic fox on the whole trip. Red foxes are not native to North America and are known to displace the smaller Arctic fox. It was also a worry because we didn’t know if the red foxes would predate the snowy owls which nest on the ground.
The UK fox hunting ban
The recent public interest in the possibility of the UK ban on fox hunting being lifted has me thinking about foxes again and all the encounters I’ve had with them in the past.
In Through the Garden Gate I filmed foxes on several occasions in the fields close to the village where I live in southern England but it was by far the hardest part of the filming to achieve because foxes are so used to being persecuted in the countryside.
[Video – Foxes hunting a hay meadow – in Through the Garden Gate DVD]
This persecution has been going on for hundreds of years and it’s not just been from hunting with hounds but also trapping, snaring, poisoning and gassing with cyanide. Some of these control methods have become illegal in recent years and the most common and legal form of fox control now, is shooting with a rifle at night.
The ban on fox hunting brought in in 2004 seems, at least where I live, to coincide with a sharp reduction in the local fox population. I have almost given up trying to film foxes in the neighbourhood any more, having had so few encounters in the last three or four years.
Fox populations of course have their natural ups and downs, diseases like mange and distemper are a common killer of foxes, but these don’t normally produce any long term low population – foxes are very quick to recolonise former haunts – I have to wonder whether it could be due to a sharp increase in fox shooting for the benefit of game birds. There is no longer any reason for any foxes to be spared for the Fox Hunt to chase.
One of the consequences of a lower fox population can be a higher brown hare population. Foxes can’t run down adult hares in the open but young hares, known as leverets, hiding in the grass are very vulnerable to being taken. There is some evidence from Sweden that foxes can be a factor in suppressing American mink numbers so a reduction in foxes might even be very bad for the highly endangered (in Britain) water vole that has no defense against this introduced predator.
When I look back at the fox behaviour that I managed to film for Through the Garden Gate several years ago, before the ban on fox hunting, I am relieved I’m not having to film a fox hunting right now.
Stephen de Vere