FOXES may not be the marauding force they are believed to be and could actually be more valuable to Scotland’s farmers alive than dead, according to a new report.
The study, based on new analysis of Scottish and international research by University of Bristol fox expert Professor Stephen Harris, estimates each fox can provide up to £886 in benefits by keeping down destructive “pests” such as rabbits.
Evidence suggests culling the carnivores can lead to a local rise in numbers and higher livestock fatalities. It also shows fox numbers have fallen since hunting was banned in 2002.
The findings contradict arguments from hunt supporters, who insist foxes must be killed to protect livelihoods.
“The scientific evidence is clear,” said Prof Harris, who has studied foxes for 50 years.
“Any losses of lambs to foxes are minor compared to other forms of mortality, and studies in Scotland have shown that fox numbers are determined by changes in the habitat, not ‘pest control’. Improvements in husbandry would have a much greater benefit in reducing lamb losses than hunting foxes.”
Fox populations have declined in the past 20 years, dropping by 29 per cent across the UK between 1995 and 2014.
Scotland, which has around 23,000 adult foxes, banned hunting in 2002. England and Wales followed suit in 2005.
But hunters north of the Border are able to exploit a loophole in the law that permits using hounds to drive a fox into the open to be shot by marksmen.
Activists say the report, prepared for League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, proves killing the creatures is “futile” and “counter-productive”.
Robbie Marsland, the group’s director, said: “Those that insist upon their right to shoot foxes or urge on a pack of hounds to chase and kill a wild animal need to face facts – there is no reason to hunt foxes, other than for their own entertainment.”
With the hunt season due to get properly under way this weekend, the campaigners are calling for laws to be tightened to ensure “no wild mammals can ever be hunted again under any circumstances”.
Jamie Stewart, director of the pro-hunting Scottish Countryside Alliance, said: “Governments from both sides of the Border accept that farmers should be able to control fox populations, and a number of methods – including shooting and snaring – remain legal.”
He added: “We believe that farmers and landowners should have the best options for wildlife management, and this includes amending the hunting act to allow the use of more than two hounds where the terrains demands it.”