The Foxes of London: Urban Threat or Misunderstood?

There’s a fox roaming around London — and he’s got DJ-turned-author Nike trainer Annie Mac. It was a sunny day in May when a particularly cheeky fox crawled into her lounge to steal the mint green Air Force 1. A day later, Ricky Gervais uploaded images of a family of foxes playing on his lawn. A cub, with a pile of dirt behind him, tried to dig his way to China.

The city fox has been sneaking more and more into Londoners’ lives lately, rummaging through trash cans, frolicking in gardens and making THAT shrieking nocturnal mating call. Foxes, through no fault of their own, have become emblematic of London’s untidiness; these days it’s as common to see a fox on the steps of Downing Street as it is excited revelers.

Although foxes have roamed the capital since the end of World War I, their numbers have increased dramatically over the past three decades. The city’s growing sprawl — offering free lodging to foxes and leftover takeaways — may help explain this increase. The London Wildlife Trust estimates there are 10,000 foxes in the city.

Having lived side by side for so long, you would expect a natural harmony to have developed between foxes and humans. However, most cultural references to foxes belie a certain uneasiness on our part. A fox is described in the Cambridge Dictionary as “one who is clever and good at deceiving people”. It is “fox by name, fox by nature” to the institutions that have chosen the animal as their brand. Think Fox News, which is accused of being good at cheating people, and Foxy Bingo: good at taking the legacy of grandchildren.

A fox’s supposed cunning has made him a disapproving creature over the years. When a fox attacked a young boy in London in 2013, Mayor Boris Johnson was quick to deride the London fox as “a pest and a threat”. The attack provoked an outpouring of enmity towards the animal, with people seeking ways to not only deter foxes, but to eradicate them altogether. Shockingly, at least two foxes were killed in south-east London in 2020 by a crossbow-wielding attacker.

Foxes play in comedian Ricky Gervais’ garden

Ricky Gervais

Today, foxes still appear to be divisive. “Foxes are no good,” one disgruntled Londoner said online, “stealing our shit. Having loud sex.” While some people are inclined to complain, others have reason to be annoyed.

“A fox entered my house by somehow bypassing the closed cat flap,” says Max, who lived in Bromley at the time. “He ate the cat food, put the kitchen bowl out and pooped on the living room carpet. It ran off when I got home from work. The problem with foxes in London is that people think they’re cute and feed them. They’re too much now. cheeky and have such a huge population in London that it’s pointless to try anything. They’ve already won.” While Max feels defeated, others fight back. In a shocking turn of events, some middle-aged men have marked their gardens with their own scent in an effort to deter foxes from their property – often slipping under the cover of darkness to do the deed on their slippers.

Others have collected male hair clippings from the barber to scatter throughout their gardens. In a response that defies logic, one woman has tended to “throw slices of meat out her window at them.”

The effectiveness of these old wives’ story solutions is up for debate. However, Trevor Williams, founder of The Fox Project, insists that deterring foxes is easier than most think. “Natural repellents, which you can buy at garden centers and hardware stores, work well to keep foxes away. Whereas if you just let a pest repeller come out and kill him, you’re just leaving an empty shelter for another fox to come in two or three weeks in. Then you have paid for nothing.”

A fox’s supposedly cunning nature has made him a pariah over the years – today they still appear to be divisive

But not everyone wants to keep foxes away. More and more Londoners are taking pictures of foxes in the city, feeding foxes in their gardens and seeking professional information on how best to interact with these creatures; we are a nation of animal lovers after all.

A recent study has found that urban foxes, which have adapted to urban life, are beginning to resemble domestic dogs. When comparing urban foxes to rural foxes, the urban fox was found to have a smaller brain: an evolutionary sign of close interaction with humans. The city fox also had a shorter muzzle with a less powerful bite – perfectly developed for hunting the city’s garbage bags.

Dennis, a fox enthusiast from Brixton, thinks that if there’s a problem with these domesticated foxes, humans created it. “We leave so much waste and food on the street, of course there are foxes. It is easy food for foxes, but it is not healthy at all.” If foxes eat human food and get sick, Dennis says, it’s our duty to provide them with veterinary care. North of the river, in Golders Green, Tom and Jiyeon take care of the foxes in their yard like pets. “We usually feed them two or three packs of Sainsbury’s chicken wings every day,” Tom says, “or maybe dog food.”

A fox runs past the front door of 10 Downing Street in central London on the eve of the 2015 UK general election

AFP via Getty Images

The couple have transformed their garden into a refuge where foxes from all walks of life pass through. “We may have two or three sets of cubs, but once they are adults they usually move on after about six months,” Tom continues. “There are five more regular flybys that come and go every now and then, but there’s also a hardcore set that were pups when we moved into the house. They’re still poking around here.”

And if a human has custom built a shed for you to sunbathe in, why leave? “Tom built the shed from old pieces of carpet and wood,” explains Jiyeon. “We also hid a few cardboard boxes with bedding in the bushes. But the foxes are really mischievous – they pull out the sheets and play with them on the lawn. Every time we put them back, they pull them out again. They are biting the heads of flowers in our garden, which is full of balls and gloves that don’t belong to us.”

So why go to such lengths to accommodate these troublemakers? “It’s really nice to have them here, now I work from the kitchen and not from the office,” says Tom. “The kitchen door is completely glass and one of the houses I made is right next to it. So I tap on my computer, and there’s a fox sleeping in a box next to you. Being so close to nature is really pleasant.”

Take foxes out of the equation and the rodent population will grow

Matt Maran, a wildlife photographer, celebrates this closer interaction with nature. During the lockdown, Matt regularly photographed foxes in his local allotment, the products of which appear in his new book Fox: Neighbour, Villain, Icon.

“I think in that time people really learned to appreciate the wildlife on their doorstep. Foxes are really gentle creatures and not aggressive, I think more people have come to understand this in recent years. Fifty percent of a city fox’s diet consists of natural foods: worms, fruits, wild birds and rodents. They play such an important role in the ecosystem – you take foxes out of the equation and your rodent population starts to grow.”

Tom has certainly felt the benefits of the fox’s natural place in the pecking order. “The more foxes there are, the fewer rats there are,” he says happily. “Within about six weeks to two months after the foxes are in the yard, they will have wiped them all out!”

What is clear, Matt emphasizes, is that foxes are here to stay. Where predators like the lynx and wolf have been wiped out by humans, foxes have “not only survived, but thrived.”

As the battle for space in the capital continues, it’s important that we respect the creatures we can see on our doorsteps — even as they go through the trash cans.

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