Urban foxes - A brush with danger

WALK down any suburban street and you will see them, darting out from behind a bush or, more likely, strutting along the pavement, lords of all they survey.

Urban foxes – once creatures of the shadows – have made themselves very much at home in towns and cities all over the UK. Free from the threat of guns which keeps their country brethren at a distance, they build their dens and raise their cubs under hedges and garden sheds and roam the neighbourhoods at will.

In December, one that rode an escalator at a London Underground station gained Twitter fame when 17,000 people viewed his photograph. With fox-hunting banned, and his cruel Chicken Licken/Gingerbread Man image replaced by a reputation for daring and enterprise (Fantastic Mr Fox, The Animals Of Farthing Wood), the fox's transformation from sly and wily pariah to welcome addition to any neighbourhood seemed, until recently, to be complete.

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All that changed last week when Pauline Koupparis found her nine-month-old twins Lola and Isabella in their cots, screaming and covered in blood. According to the mother-of-three, the attack was carried out by a fox which walked through an open door of their 800,000 home in Hackney, East London, through the living room where she and her husband were watching TV, and into the babies' room.

When Koupparis went in to see why the girls' were crying the fox was not flailing about in state of panic or confusion. "It wasn't even scared of me. It just looked me directly in the eye," she said.

Within hours of the attack, which left the babies looking "like something out of a horror movie", the backlash had begun. Parents were panicking, MPs were called for tighter fox laws and pest controllers' phones were ringing off the hook.

As other people told of near misses, one daily newspaper ran a front page photograph of the "suspect" – a young fox, which would, in any other circumstance, have been branded "cute" – and a vixen and two cubs were killed near the family's home.

Yet elsewhere, fox experts were casting doubt on the story. In a defence which had echoes of the "The Dingo is Innocent" campaign which followed the disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain at Ayers Rock in Australia in 1980 (her mother Lindy was wrongly convicted of her murder despite insisting a dingo was to blame), wildlife expert Terry Nutkins seemed to cast doubt on Koupparis's account, saying he was 75 per cent sure a fox was not responsible (and insisting a dog or a cat was a more likely culprit).

So, with many experts continuing to insist this was a "freak" occurrence, are foxes harmless victims of mass hysteria or brazen intruders handed a licence to kill by a powerful animal rights lobby?

According to the Mammal Project at Bristol University – foxes first started to colonise British cities in the 1930s when a trend for lower density living meant an increase in semi-detached suburban homes with gardens which provided ideal spots for them to set up home. With food supplies plentiful (experts estimate that each night there is 150 times more food available than urban foxes need to survive), they have thrived to such an extent that there are now thought to be 34,000 of them in the UK.

But our perception that the urban fox is on the rise is apparently erroneous. At this time of year, numbers swell because cubs are being born. But – with the average life expectancy of a fox hovering around 18 months (100,000 a year are killed by cars, while outbreaks of sarcoptic mange have also claimed lives), the overall population is thought to be more or less static.

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What is undeniable, however, is that – with many city dwellers feeding and effectively "taming" foxes – they are becoming more visible. "The urban fox has learned it has little to fear from man, and so is less wary," says Martin Hemmington, founder of the National Fox Welfare Society, which rescues injured foxes.

As to what foxes are capable of, opinion is very much divided. Let loose in a chicken coop, they will kill everything in sight – not for pleasure, as some people believe, but because they believe they can stash the food and come back to it when they are hungry.

While birds, rats and guinea pigs are also common prey, experts say foxes rarely attack anything larger than themselves. Yet when wheelie bins were first introduced in Edinburgh, allegedly cutting off a vital food supply, they were said to have turned their attention to rabbits and cats.

Pest controller Gordon Manson says he has witnessed first-hand the damage foxes can do to pets. "I have seen – hidden under garden huts – bodies of cats and heads of rabbits brought to feed the cubs," he says.

The same conflict of opinion surrounds the possibility of fox attacks on humans. From time to time there are reports of the vulnerable getting bitten. A few years ago, Edinburgh pensioner Margaret O'Shaugnessy was left with a three-inch long wound on her leg after a fox bit her as she put out a saucer of milk for her cat, while in 2002 Sue Eastwood said her baby was injured after a fox entered their home in Dartford, Kent. There was also a report – confirmed by the council – of a fox taking a baby's body from a paupers' grave in Battersea New Cemetery earlier this year.

Despite this, many experts continue to express astonishment at the attack in that, in general, foxes pose no threat. "You need only look at what has happened in the wake of this incident to see how unusual it is," says Hemmington. "If this was a common occurrence it wouldn't be making front page news."

John Bryant, British Humane Wildlife Deterrence Association, has suggested the fox was lured into the house by the smell of food from a soiled nappy and insisted he sees this as a one-off that "will never be repeated".

Worried householders, it seems, will take a little more convincing. According to Iain Wright, owner of Excel Environmental Services, calls about foxes have increased since the babies were mauled.

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But those determined to act to protect their children may find it more difficult than they realise to divest themselves of the animals.

As foxes are not classified as "vermin" the local authority has no duty to control numbers and the law prohibits people from poisoning them, setting a gin trap or covering up their holes while they are inside. There have been dark rumours of city dwellers rounding up urban foxes and repatriating them to the countryside – but such an exercise would be difficult and ultimately futile – a fox is capable of walking tens of kilometres to get "home".

Repellents such as Scoot may work in the short-term, persuading a fox to move on, but only until another arrives to take his place.

The only alternative is to call in a pest controller, who may charge upwards of 300 to lay a trap and then shoot the animal in the head. Many shy away from this controversial work. "We try not to get involved with that because of the conflict it causes," says Wright. "While one neighbour may want a fox dealt with, another may be feeding it, and that can lead to bad feeling."

Those pest controllers who do kill foxes stand accused of taking people's money without explaining that doing so is unlikely to solve the problem long-term. "The thing is, foxes are territorial," Hemmington says. "When a family of foxes moves into a territory, the adult will patrol the borders of that territory so other foxes will not come in. If you kill the adult then that territory becomes vacant and it won't be long before another family moves in."

Experts believe even a wider cull would have a limited impact on overall numbers, as 70 per cent of the population would have to be killed every years for five to ten years to make any serious impact.

With Mrs Koupparis vowing to launch a campaign when her babies have recovered, the furore over the attack shows no sign of calming down.

It is grist to the mill to the Countryside Alliance, which is still smarting over the ban on fox-hunting. Indeed many of those in the pro-hunting lobby are indulging in a degree of schadenfraude – revelling in the fact that the very London "chatterati" which pilloried the huntsmen is now feeling itself under threat.

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To many, the events of the past few days seem to fit in very nicely with David Cameron's agenda: he renewed his commitment to overturning the ban shortly before he became Prime Minister. Although he himself has not so far commented on the attack, Mayor of London Boris Johnson last week called for local authorities to take more responsibility for controlling them, and Commons leader Sir George Young promised to ask the Home Secretary, Theresa May, whether a change in the law would be appropriate.

Even if the measures eventually taken are considerably less drastic, the damage to the fox's image has been done.

Back in his traditional role as the sneaky, cruel predator – the role so familiar to us from the likes of the Reynard stories and The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen – it is likely to be a while before he burrows his way back into public affection again.