Outdoors: The urban fox

They are as different as chalk and cheese. One is a shy and elusive beast, seldom seen and often persecuted. The other is a much bolder animal altogether, going about his daily business under our very noses, padding along pavements, sleeping under garden sheds, and dining out of dustbins. The fox is an animal of myth and folklore, and the contrasting habits of the urban and country fox only serve to further heighten the mystique.

For many years, the urban fox has been a source of fascination for me, and as a teenager and young man in Edinburgh, I spent many evenings precariously perched in trees or on walls watching the animals go about their business. The exact reason for my intrigue is hard to pinpoint, but I think it stems from a feeling of almost disbelief that a wild animal the size of a small dog lives and thrives in our cities.

The urban fox is exposed to as much myth as its country cousin. Yes, they will raid dustbins, but in my experience do so much less frequently than is popularly supposed, simply because they don't need to. This is because towns and cities are rich in a wide range of prey species from sparrows to pigeons, mice to rabbits, and other savoury titbits, such as worms and beetles.

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Cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow are not just concrete jungles, but rather an intricate patchwork of green, including leafy gardens and small woods, railway embankments, parks and cemeteries, all of which serve to make an ideal foraging ground for foxes. As far as the fox is concerned, there is nothing better than a good, well-tended lawn on a warm, damp night for providing a veritable feast of worms.

Another popular myth about urban foxes is that they kill cats. While this may very occasionally be true, in the numerous encounters I have witnessed between the two, more times than not the fox backs down first, or is even forced to flee from the tetchy moggy with its hackles raised.

However, other pets are regarded as fair game. I once found the remains of a tortoise outside a fox den in the Trinity area of Edinburgh and I am sure that some guinea pigs and pet rabbits meet a similar fate. But foxes don't carry keys and can gain access to a hen house or rabbit hutch only if the owner hasn't properly secured it.

Although always wary, the urban fox is amazingly indifferent to humans and I have noticed a big difference in this level of tolerance compared to when I first started to watch Edinburgh foxes in the mid-1970s. They were still quite shy then but now it is not uncommon to watch them nonchalantly trotting along the pavements of Glasgow or Edinburgh, unfazed by meeting a human.

The city slicker's country counterpart is so very different. Here is a shy and careful animal, skirting around farmhouses and villages, making only the occasional foray to raid a hen house or sniff around for rats and mice in a farmyard during the dead of night. Disturb a country fox during the course of a walk, and in a blur of russet he will be gone.

The fox, whether urban or country, is one of the animal success stories of modern times. He is everywhere, in our towns, fields, woods and mountains. Many people don't like the animal, whether it be a sheep farmer convinced that his lambs are being preyed upon, or a householder who has had his pristine lawn dug up by an inquisitive cub. But conversely, it should be remembered that the fox plays an important role in keeping rabbit and rodent numbers down.

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And in any case, perhaps we see a little bit of the sly old fox in all of us, hence our long-held and grudging admiration for one of Scotland's most familiar wild animals.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, January 31, 2010