Urban foxes are a common sight when walking through residential London at night. A problem for some and a pleasure to others, these cunning animals have a reputation for mischief that is perhaps not wholly deserved.
There are currently around 33,000 foxes living in UK towns and cities, and roughly 16 per square mile in the capital alone. One of those foxes has set up a cosy home in my back garden.
She lives under the shed, taking over the garden during the day to sunbathe on the bench, which she has ripped ragged in her attempts to make it comfortable.
Contrary to popular belief, foxes, although unashamed nocturnal scavengers, don't need to pilfer from bins to feed themselves. They are omnivores who manage to survive through a varied diet ranging from earthworms, small birds, rats and mice to insects, windfall fruit and wild berries.
When our fox first arrived we enjoyed watching her come and go - a great activity for fans of wildlife photography - and were careful not to make too much noise in the kitchen and frighten her. She became part of the family and walking through the back of the house we would always check to see if she was alright. She got used to us as well, graciously allowing us to open windows again and run the washing machine. We didn't name her. She knows her name and it's not really our business.
There's no exact science to luring an urban fox into your garden. If you live in the right sort of area - residential with green space - you probably get visits already. They will however, be further encouraged by easy access to food and shelter. Apparently garden sheds are a favourite. There you can get lots of great pictures and a chance to see them in their natural environment.
At the beginning of the year our fox disappeared for a while. We were worried about her and kept an eye out in the street when walking home of an evening, although I confess it would have been near impossible to tell her apart from the others that live in the area. Mating season (when the foxes get very noisy and people find them most disruptive) came and went and towards the end of March she emerged again, with five tiny cubs in tow.
The life expectancy of the average urban fox is less than two years, although they can live up to 10 years in the wild if they are lucky. Breeding season peaks in January and after a gestation period of about 53 days the cubs are born – usually between two and seven of them – blind and deaf with short black fur. When they are four weeks old they are big enough to play outside, although they stay very close to the den for several more weeks. Their fur begins to turn red at this stage and their faces and ears start to lengthen into the pointy vulpine shape we are accustomed to seeing.
Our cubs play together daily, chasing each other, play-fighting and chewing whatever they can find. Ordinarily the fox family would be larger, including more adults to help raise the cubs and find food. We've never seen the cubs' father but it would not be unusual for him to be involved in their upbringing. However, like humans, some foxes are monogamous and some aren't. In our case mummy fox is going it alone.
Seeing a family of foxes up close like this makes it very tempting to feed them. Some people do, treating them more like visiting cats than wild animals. While organisations such as the RSPCA don't prohibit this, it's not really advisable. Feeding foxes can cause them to become tame, which could be harmful to them in the long run. If they don't need to forage for their own food, particularly at a young age, then they won't and may become overly dependent on an artificial food source. It also encourages them to approach people for food who may have different opinions about how cute foxes are.
Although a fox should never be fed by hand, for the reasons above, they are not dangerous when treated with respect. Wary creatures, foxes will only attack if cornered, avoiding dogs, cats and people of all ages completely where it is possible to do so. An occasional attack in the news may paint urban foxes to be an increasing menace who are getting bigger and bolder with an increasing population but in truth urban foxes are no bigger than their rural counterparts – the only difference between them is location – and their population in the UK hasn't notably increased over the last 20 years.
Although they are not as pesky as their reputation suggests it's completely reasonable that not everyone will appreciate having a live-in fox family as much as I do. To discourage foxes from settling in your garden you need to remove access to convenient shelter and potential food supplies, blocking up gaps under sheds, removing dense vegetation and protecting any crops, small outdoor pets (such as rabbits) and bird food. There are also several repellents that can be purchased from most home and garden retailers.
If we are lucky, all five of our fox cubs will live to find their own territories when they leave the family at around six months old. Due to the many dangers of urban living many foxes don't reach their breeding age of 10 months. The most common cause of death in their population is car accidents but outbreaks of mange, territorial fights and lack of food (often occurring when the fox is unable to mark a territory of their own) all contribute to their struggle.
Foxes are amazing creatures, highly adaptable, intelligent and incredibly cute. They live in many different regions and environments across the world from Africa to the Arctic and are an important part of the ecosystem. When they get used to people's comings and goings they are also great to photograph. They will happily go about their business, letting you capture their natural movements as long as they aren't startled by the shutter. As with any wildlife photography the key is patience but because of their amazing colour and noble appearance the results are usually well worth it.
For any further information on the wonders of foxes, if you want to help them or are worried about one visit the RSPCA website.
I love foxes. There are loads living by the river bank outside our house. We frequently hear them barking, and last night two were having a go at one another. I think it might have been a male and female.