Fantastic Mr Fox?

Foxes are generally not aggressive unless they are protecting their young. Picture by Mick Gisbourne
More and more foxes are being seen in urban gardens and seem unafraid of humans. Picture by Mick Gisbourne

Since the 1930s, foxes have been finding their way into our villages and towns where they make their dens and live happily amongst us, the main reason being that food is so easy to to come by. A fox is an opportunist hunter, and therefore if dinner is readily available in our bins, our gardens or just thoughtlessly dropped on the ground, then he’ll choose that option rather than than go to the effort of having to chase it down himself. Numbers in rural areas are decreasing, while they are steadily rising in built-up areas.

The urbanised fox often shows little fear of humans, and in some cases, demonstrates what can seem like downright defiance. My sister lives in a city suburb and has been having trouble with a family of foxes for some time. They play in her garden and show absolutely no concern about being out in the open during daylight hours.

One day, she heard an almighty commotion at the back of the house, and witnessed her terrified pet cat come hurtling though the hallway to disappear up the stairs. When my sister went to investigate, she found a fox sitting on her sofa in the conservatory! She chased it away, but the brazen fox is still intent on chasing the cat, and so now she dare not leave the patio door open if no-one is in the room, and is on constant fox-watch whenever the cat dares to go out.

Having done some research, I’m relieved to discover that foxes are not generally considered a threat to cats, and tend to avoid any conflict with them, knowing they are likely to come of worse in a confrontation. But if they have had cubs, then they will see off anything that they consider a danger to the offspring. My sister said there were cubs around, so it is likely it was mum or dad fox defending the babes from her curious cat.

In my dad’s column from 28th August 1982, he suggests that the fox’s reputation for being cunning is not really deserved. He repeats a couple of fox-related myths which he thinks are just old wives tales.

The first one is that the fox catches prey by making them dizzy. The story goes that if a fox spots a group of rabbits nibbling the grass, he will creep stealthily ever-closer, and then start performing strange antics to catch their attention. Once the rabbits see him, he then starts chasing his tail, spinning in mesmerising circles, edging ever closer to the captivated bunnies. The watching rabbits get so dizzy that they are simply unable to run away, and the fox’s trick has earned him his dinner.

The second tale involves the way a fox deals with an infestation of fleas. To rid himself of the itchy pests, a fox will take a clump of moss (or other greenery) in his mouth, then wade out into a nearby river or pond. He will keep going until he is out of his depth. Then, he will gradually let his body sink, tail first, and as he does so, the fleas creep up his body to avoid the water. He keeps slowly sinking until only his muzzle with the moss is showing. To avoid drowning, the beleaguered fleas leap onto the moss, at which point, the fox lets go, and the moss with its nippy passengers on board, sails off with the current.

Other versions have the fox creeping from the shore tail first into the water. Again, I can only find the same or similar stories repeated, rather than any source suggesting this is actual fox behaviour. The story apparently goes right back to ancient Greece, which is impressive nevertheless. I’ve tried to find credible references to both of these behaviours and have come up empty handed. So my very non-scientific conclusion is that they are just myths. But as the stories are well-known and generations old, it could go some way to explaining how the fox’s reputation for cunning persists.

What I have found out though, is that generally, foxes are not confrontational, nor aggressive, unless threatened or protecting young. My sister’s fox has been known to sit in her garden and stare at her house, which she says she finds quite unnerving.

Let’s hope it is simply admiring the view.

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 2nd September  and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 31st August 2022