Laura Cummings: There's no need for people to fear a brush with foxes

DISTINGUISHED by its pointed ears and long bushy tail, the fox is an animal synonymous with the British countryside.

With conditions in the wild increasingly tough, however, foxes have also become a common sight in the UK's towns and city centres, feeding off human leftovers instead of their traditional prey of rodents and birds.

There have been reports of fearless foxes venturing into stores across Edinburgh city centre, including the Royal Mile, in broad daylight, while shopkeepers on George Street have seen foxes wandering down the street in the middle of the day.

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Our relaxed attitude to the animals is likely to have changed dramatically now, after one was involved in a brutal attack in an east London home over the weekend. The animal has been blamed for the mauling of twin baby girls as they lay sleeping in their cots in an upstairs room of the house.

The fox had apparently entered through a door on the ground floor that had been left open for ventilation before attacking the nine-month-old sisters, who both suffered arm wounds. One of the girls is believed to also have facial injuries.

So should we be more concerned about foxes roaming the streets of the Capital at night, or is this just an isolated, if tragic, case?

Scotland's animal welfare charity insists that fox attacks on humans are extremely rare and, in general, the animal poses no real danger.

Scottish SPCA wildlife rescue centre manager, Colin Seddon, said: "In 30 years, I have never known a wild fox to attack a person. Even when cornered, their instinct is always to run away.

"A wild fox would not enter a home so I suspect that in this incident, the fox may have been tamed and released. Someone may have been hand-feeding or hand-rearing it, possibly in a contained or captive environment, and then released it into the area to fend for itself. Generally speaking, wild foxes do not present a threat to the public."

Scotland's leading wildlife conservation charity agrees.

Head of policy for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Tony King, said: "The dreadful story of a fox attack on children is extremely rare. We know that foxes have been reported to have bitten humans on very few occasions over the last 80 or so years, and the fact that fox attacks are news highlights their rarity. Sadly, the opposite is true of attacks by domestic dogs.

"Foxes are wild animals and should be treated with respect. This includes respecting their wildness and not encouraging them to lose their natural wariness of humans. It is very difficult to imagine why a fox would behave in this way, but over-familiarity with humans might be a partial explanation."

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The only previous recorded fox attack on a human in an urban area in the UK which resulted in hospital treatment was the case of pensioner Margaret O'Shaughnessy, who was bitten in Edinburgh in August 2004.

Mrs O'Shaughnessy, who was 88 at the time, was left with a three-inch long bite mark on her leg following the attack when she went into her garden to feed her cat in the Firrhill area of the city.

It was the first time a fox had been known to attack a human in the Capital and the report followed a string of fox attacks on pets.

At the time there were claims that problems had increased because of the city council's efforts to replace black bin bags with wheelie bins across the Capital. It was believed the containers may have cut off a supply of food, leading foxes to hunt more animals in the city.

Mr Seddon says: "Foxes, being from the dog family, can become tame, especially if people feed them.

"The urban fox population is at a high level in this country and they have evolved to become used to the sights and sounds of living in our cities.

"Unlike country foxes, urban foxes breed in built-up areas and live all their lives in this busy environment surrounded by people, so it is only natural for them to become comfortable."

Red foxes live around the world in a range of habitats including forests, grasslands, mountains and deserts. They also adapt well to human environments.

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The animal tends to feast on rodents, rabbits, birds and other small game, but its diet can be as flexible as its habitat. Foxes will eat fruit and vegetables, frogs, fish and even worms. Urban foxes will scavenge for food in bin bags, although the Scottish SPCA underlines that they will only take food from bins that are open or accessible.

Rural foxes tend to be much larger than their city counterparts and can prey on animals as large as lambs.

Mr King adds: "Whilst foxes undoubtedly do scavenge from bin bags, domestic refuse is not likely to be their main source of food."

A fox's scavenging habits has led to some people regarding the key character in the British wildlife world as a pest or even vermin.

An Evening Standard investigation earlier this year revealed that a newborn boy's remains were snatched by a fox from Battersea New Cemetery last September after he was put in an open paupers' grave with 12 other infants.

Although it is unclear exactly how many foxes are currently living in Edinburgh, experts believe there to be more than 100. The local authority said it had received 18 calls this year about the animal, while last year there were 271 calls about "other wildlife" – the majority of which concerned foxes. A council spokesman said: "We recommend residents take measures to make sure no food is available so foxes will not be encouraged into gardens and near homes."

Scottish SPCA chief superintendent, Mike Flynn, added: "The vast majority of foxes do not present a risk to the public, but we advise people to leave them alone."