When I visited London for the first time, I knew I would be in for many, many surprises but I hardly expected to see what I was seeing as I a stepped out of a flat near King’s Cross one summer night. Standing there, perfectly framed under a lonely light in the middle of Bingfield Park, was an ethereal red fox. Stunned, I rubbed my eyes to make sure that the animal silently staring back at me wasn’t a beer-induced mirage and was actually there. Now, having grown-up in a rural part of the California coast, I was accustomed to all manner of wildlife making an appearance in civilization from time to time. Deer would graze on my lawn, raccoons and coyotes patrolled the street at night, and I even had a multi-generational family of scrub jays which would come to my kitchen window for the occasional peanut. But this was London, one of the most populous and urbanized pieces of the world. What on earth was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) doing in a place like this? The next morning, I started inquiring about the fox and the local residents informed me that red foxes have become quite the fixture in London.
Since the 1940’s, red foxes have been taking up residence in urban parts of the UK, with approximately 10,000 coming to call London home. There, they are simultaneously vilified as a scourge and celebrated as wonderful additions to the city (depending on who you ask) but with 86% of surveyed Londoners looking upon them favorably and staunch legal protections in place, it’s almost certain that they will remain there for years to come.
So what is life like for a London fox? Based on the available research, it appears that London’s foxes have established a vast network of territories spanning gardens, parks, and yards and generally cohabit quite peacefully with their human neighbors. An adaptable nocturnal omnivore, the foxes feed on a range of items including (but not limited to) berries, vegetables, insects, rabbits, birds, and fish. Of course, being opportunists, urban foxes will also feed on discarded food scraps and refuse, but claims of foxes subsisting entirely on overturned trash bins appear to illustrate an uncommon behavior.
The relative peace of urban backyard gardens also makes London a boon for vixens looking for a nice place to start a family. Mating season begins in January with 4-5 kits being born in late March in dens excavated beneath sheds, hedges, or in other sheltered areas. They kits remain in the den for 6-8 weeks, after which they leave to learn to forage with their family until late fall when they strike out on their own.
But life isn’t all great for urban foxes. Most don’t survive past their 2nd birthday and motor vehicles account for 60% of the recorded mortalities. There is also the very real threat posed by disgruntled human residents who perceive the fox a nuisance or even a danger and want them eradicated.
For several years, there have been numerous calls for stricter control measures and even for cull operations, but experts maintain that these measures would be unsuccessful. The foxes are simply too adaptable and too established to effectively expel them from the city. As soon as you remove a group of foxes from one area, a new group will move-in to fill the void within days.
Besides, the foxes are fulfilling at least one very useful and welcome role. With London experiencing a persistent rat problem, the presence of a predator with a penchant for rodents demonstrates that the foxes have a very real utility aside from serving as a lively reminder of the interconnectivity of civilized world with the greater environment.
Want to learn more about London’s urban foxes? The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and The Fox Website are two good places to start. You can also see the Further Reading section below for some articles from the BBC and other sources. If images are what you’re after, be sure to visit the Urban Fox group on Flickr.