By Anthony Robson
I’m standing near the intersection of two busy Edinburgh roads, leaning on a metal railing beside a bus stop, looking over into an overgrown, untouched, area of a park within five minutes of my home. And on the far side, maybe 50-60 yards away, on a steeply sloping bank, are 7 foxes sunning themselves. As I snap away on this early weekend morning a few dog walkers walk past on their way to the park, stop and ask me if I’ve seen the foxes, then stand and watch with me for a while. For such a seemingly controversial animal, in the few years I’ve been watching this particular group, the closest I’ve come to hearing a negative opinion is simply with comments that people feed them too much. So just why does the red fox, Britain’s second largest native carnivore (thanks to getting a pub quiz question wrong I now know the Grey Seal is the largest), get such a bad rep?
Certainly in Edinburgh there are a lot of foxes. This den is perhaps artificially large, caused in no doubt by the wealth of prey in an untouched area, supplemented by the sheer number of back gardens they have access to. Any time I’m walking home late at night there is a very good chance of seeing a couple out and about, and our garden is something of a regular highway. This should perhaps be unsurprising given we also have a chicken run in the back garden with three resident birds, but foxes are also highly intelligent. The chicken run has been in place for about 4 years now, and they simply know that if the birds are in there, the foxes can’t get in (the chickens have also learned this and we’ve seen them eyeballing the foxes through the wire, with one going as far as pecking a fox on the nose when he sniffed too closely). These days the foxes wander into the garden, take a brief glance at the run, and pad away. If you see one testing the mesh, circling a couple of times, you can almost guarantee it’s a new youngster on the scene who just hasn’t learned yet (we also have a cat who has chased foxes out of the garden on numerous occasions, as a fox will only really take on a cat if completely cornered or utterly desperate, cats have claws and can fight a fox rather effectively).
That’s not to say we haven’t come close to losing a chicken or two. There’s perhaps no doubt that foxes can get, and are, a bit brazen. In Edinburgh their movements aren’t limited to evening strolls, and at pretty much any time of the day they can appear. We’ve been working in the garden, chickens around our feet, when one suddenly gets agitated, and there in the corner, eyeing up a tasty meal, is a fox. Of course the simple counter to foxes getting more brazen is that we are to blame, putting temptation in their way, and making life particularly easy for them with our gridded gardens. Get chased out of one, find sanctuary just next door. And as a chicken owner people often think I should hate these urban canines, but I see it as my responsibility to make sure my pets are safe from harm. The fox? He’s acting entirely naturally, whereas we have created the unnatural situation of a ready food source just behind a piece of wire. Just as we go to the supermarket because it’s more convenient to buy our meat pre-packaged than have to do the deed ourselves, so the fox is more happy to torment a caged animal than have to pursue one through the thick undergrowth with no guarantee of success.
This does, of course, lead to a belief that life for the urban fox is easy. That it’s quite simply a stroll in the park, creating fear in the human population, while eating our pets. On a whim of curiosity I did a bit of research into life expectancies of foxes, and the urban brethren fare somewhat worse than their country cousins. Essentially each year half the foxes die. Each cub born has a one in two chance of making its first birthday; a one in four chance of seeing two years old; and three years is about the pinnacle an urban fox can hop to achieve. Compared to the countryside where foxes can live to 15, and about 12 is the norm, the city dwellers have it much, much harder.
A lot of that is simply down to higher volumes of traffic. While much of the slack in the figures is down to disease. Mange can especially run right through a den. I’ve seen some bad examples in the past, and seen survivors, but the majority won’t have been so lucky. Perhaps the foxes have the same perception as us of urban living being easier for them.
I’ll never tire of seeing foxes in our city, and not just my local den in Duddingston, that has provided me with shots of newly-emergent cubs, and some lovely interactions between adults; but anywhere I spot them. Riding to work one morning down Johnston Terrace I saw one smattering up the side of Castle Hill, stopping to perch on a rock and look regally down on his subjects (which included me with the camera, a workman out his van having seen it cross the road in front of him, and a small gaggle of Japanese tourists who wondered what on earth I was pointing the big camera lens at). Lunchtime walks from the office out along the canal have given me fox sightings, and at night I set up a night vision motion sensor camera to see when and how often they pop by.
As a nation of dog lovers the consternation caused by these beautiful red creatures is maybe out of kilter, though I have to admit to still finding it strange that we essentially have wild dogs roaming our streets, but my experience talking to people about them suggests the media storm is whipped up by a few, and most people share my enjoyment. As for the local den, the recent warm and wet weather has seen the undergrowth shoot up, and it’s more difficult to see in. I’m still hopeful of spotting some cubs, but I’m still more than happy to catch a glance of one curled up, eyes peeking above the tail, wondering when I’m going to put the camera away and leave it in peace.
You can read Anthony’s blog at http://edinburghwildlife.wordpress.com/