Species Profile: Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
After the last wolf was killed in 1786, the red fox, madra rua in Irish, became the only representative of the Canidae family in Ireland. Since then this rusty-red mammal has defied all odds and has thrived despite continuously being persecuted and hunted.
The red fox started to evolve from a much smaller ancestor in central Eurasia some 4 million years ago. Along with the red fox three other Vulpes species developed from this common ancestor, the artic fox that lives, as the name suggests, around the arctic circle, the swift fox that lives in north America and the fennec fox that can be found in northern Africa. The oldest remains of today’s red fox were found in Hungary and dated to be 3 million years old. However, this version of Vulpes vulpes was considerably smaller than our red fox. It is thought that the modern red fox reached its current shape and size (male adults can reach a length of up to 150 centimetres half of which can be accredited to the bushy tail) during the mid-Pleistocene, the time when the northern hemisphere was intermittently covered with glaciers, commonly known as the ice age. During this time the red fox managed to spread from its place of origin in central Europe and Asia around the world to western Europe, eastern Asia and North America. When the red fox came to Ireland isn’t entirely clear, but it is most likely that the animal only became a permanent resident after the last glaciation about 10.000 years ago.
Because of its adaptability the red fox is one of the most successful mammal species today and can be found in a number of habitats from mountains to farmland and even in urban areas. One of the reasons the red fox is able to inhabit so many different environments is its diet. The fox is a hunter, scavenger and in general an opportunist. It can hunt rabbits, mice and other rodents and feast on ground nesting birds as well as their eggs. If necessary the fox also digs up worms and larvae or goes for blackberries and other fruit. Roadkill and other dead animals are also on the menu as are human food leftovers. When looking for a meal the fox mainly relies on its hearing and sense of smell. Its eyesight is excellent at night when the animal is most active but less so during daylight hours.
The red fox commonly lives in a small family unit made up of a breeding male (dog, tod or reynard) and female (vixen) and a number of non-breeding younger females, all members of previous litters. Mating season starts in January and can go on until March. During this time a high-pitched screaming can often be heard at night. This is the mating call of the vixen, a bone-chilling noise which is probably the source of the banshee legend. This wailing however is only one of the vocalizations the fox is capable of. Studies have shown that foxes have a 5-octave vocal range and that adults can produce 12 different and very distinctive sounds that are used for communication. In addition to this audible language, foxes also use body language to talk to each other. This body language is based on ear and tail movement and overall posture. Inquisitive foxes will rotate and flick their ears while sniffing. Perking their ears and rising on their hind legs is an invitation to play. A scared fox grins in submission while arching its back, curving its body, crouching its legs and lashing its tail back and forth with the ears pointing backwards and pressed against the skull. When merely expressing submission to a dominant animal, the posture is similar, but without arching the back or curving the body. Male foxes courting females, or after successfully fighting off intruders, will turn their ears outwardly, and raise their tails in a horizontal position, with the tips raised upward.
Cubs are born in March and April, are completely helpless and therefore stay in the underground den for the first 2 months of their live. When born fox cubs have blue eyes and a chocolate coloured fur and change into the typical fox colours only shortly before they leave the den. Male cubs leave the family in autumn to establish their own territory, while female cubs often stay with the family for another year or longer.
The borders of a fox territory are continuously being marked with faeces, urine and the secretion from various scent glands some of which can be found on the feet of the animal. The size of the territory is dependent on the habitat it occupies. Foxes living in mountainous areas usually have a larger territory than the ones occupying farmland, while urban foxes only need a rather small area to survive. Foxes don’t seem to live in the same area all their life and apparently are able to switch not only territories but also habitats, which again speaks for their high adaptability. In 2014 an urban fox named Fleet was given a tracking device as part of a study undertaken by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch. To the surprise of everybody Fleet left his urban home in Hove, a coastal town in East Sussex, and went on a journey, crossing farmland and forests and travelling over 300 kilometres in 21 days. Unfortunately the tracker stopped transmitting on day 22 so it is not known if Fleet continued his journey or eventually returned to Hove.
Today the red fox is a very welcome connection to nature for many people in rural as well as urban areas and a fox visiting the back garden at the same time every day is not uncommon. The question if it is ok to feed wild foxes is somewhat controversial. In rural areas there should be enough food available to sustain the animal, so it isn’t really necessary to supply the animal with food. In urban areas natural food can be a bit harder to come by and it is more likely that the fox will start to rely on left out food. In any case it is important to remember that the red fox is a wild animal that will defend itself and attack if it feels threatened or cornered. I started feeding foxes some years ago to take their attention away from the chicken run. It worked and not only did the regular bowl of leftovers prevent a chicken slaughter, I also learned a thing or two about fox personalities. The first fox that came visiting was initially very shy but over time started to become more trusting and eventually allowed me to sit a few meters away while it was eating. Another time a vixen showed up with their cubs and wasn’t bothered very much by my presence as long as I kept a certain distance. In the following year a single fox came by, possibly one of the cubs from the year before, showing no fear at all and for all I could tell demanding food. This particular fox kept visiting on a daily basis for almost 2 years, taking food from the hand and lying down for a nap beside me in the grass. While this was a wonderful experience for me, this blind trust towards humans isn’t the best character trait for a fox. Currently a rather jittery and aggressive male fox drops by every evening and likes to pick a fight with the stray cat and a pair of magpies. At least he leaves the chicken alone.
Carsten Krieger, January 2020