THE SCREAM ON A DECEMBER NIGHT

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

A high-pitched but hoarse scream cuts through the night. Again and again it is heard, then is silent. A frightening sound, perhaps of a person being attacked …. But no, it is a vixen, a female red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Why is she screaming? Is she in pain?  Not exactly — she is informing dog-foxes in the area that she is ready to mate and where they can find her.

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

 

But this is December and, according to Internet site after site dealing with foxes in Britain and in Ireland, she is at least a month early1. Perhaps she is a rare exception, this vixen in the Drumcondra area but it seems to me more likely that the sites have it wrong: either urban foxes breed earlier or the breeding pattern of foxes is changing. Actually, a combination of both is likely.

A vixen breeding in January would give birth to her cubs just over 50 days later, when in rural areas the earth is warming up in the Spring and when lambs are born, hares are boxing, eggs are being laid, greens are growing and being eaten by rabbits – in other words, food is becoming available for the vixen. Obviously vixens breeding in February or March will have yet more food available in April or May but may also find greater competition, in food and for a mate.

Say this rural vixen conceived on 1st January, then she would give birth on or around 22nd February. She will need feeding just before that and probably up to 24th March, a task falling to the dog fox and to unmated young females who may be part of the community. The cubs need the warmth of the mother’s body for up to three weeks after birth and she cannot leave the den. One month after giving birth the mother vixen may go hunting while the “aunts” look after the cubs, who are now venturing out of the den or “earth” (but staying very close to it).

The food brought to the young is carried inside the hunters’ bellies and regurgitated for the young to consume along with their mother’s milk which they will suckle until six weeks of age. After weaning, the cubs will eat solid food but cannot yet hunt for it themselves until perhaps mid-late Summer and, if males, will leave to establish their own territories in the Autumn.2 Males become sexually mature at one year of age.

A vixen breeding in December in an Irish rural area might have difficulty receiving enough sustenance in January or even early February, especially in decades past when winters were usually harder. However, with changing seasonal weather patterns tending to warmer winters – and in urban areas where a lot of food tends to be available for scavenging all year round – these problems are substantially reduced and so breeding in December should present little difficulties. So the thinking goes among the vixens in Drumcondra, anyway and, I suspect, in many other Irish and British urban areas.

The male or ‘dog’ fox can be heard sometimes too in a staccato bark, normally three (but occasionally four) rapid barks: bak, bak, bak!

 

THE URBAN FOX

The urban fox is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland3, as far as we know, although in Bristol, for example, they have been recorded since the 1930s. Up to fairly recently, a number of experts maintained that the fox populations of city and countryside had little contact with one another. But in January 2014 “it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch, had travelled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting, due to suspected water damage.”4

 

and the Country Foxes

Decades before I heard of this I often fancifully imagined a conversation between a fox, now settled in the “big city”, and his country relations when he returned on a visit. After the initial customary welcoming, sniffing, licking etc are over, the conversation might go like this:

So, Darkie, tell us, what is life like in the big city?”

Ah, it was scary at first, with cars and buses and lorries going all day. You wouldn’t believe the noise.”

(Sympathetic whine from the audience).

But I’m used to it now, Redthree, I have to say. And the food! You could not imagine!”

Good, is it?”

Lovely, Whitepatch, absolutely delicious.”

(Sounds of salivating all around).

Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, rice, vegetables, fruit – just left out there to be eaten!”

Ah, you’re havin’ us on, Darkie. We might be “Culchies” but we’re not stupid! You expect us to believe the humans feed you like they do their dogs, do you?”

No, of course not, Greymuzzle. Well, actually a few do leave out food on purpose for us but no, this is mostly food that humans are throwing away. We find it in plastic bags and metal containers.”

They throw away food?”

They do and huge amounts of it too. Then big lorries come and take away what we have not eaten ourselves.”

Where do they take it?”

I am not sure. I’ve never troubled to find out because, to be honest, I have all the food I need nearby.”

(Silence while country foxes imagine a huge mountain of food somewhere).

Er …. Darkie, so you never hunt now?”

Oh, yes, some – the city rats and mice eat the discarded food too and they grow plump and big. Yes, I catch and eat them too.”

Well now, what about all the humans?”

What about them, Lighteyes? They don’t bother us.”

Don’t the humans have guns in the city?”

Some of them do, Lighteyes. But they don’t shoot foxes with them.”

Really? What do they shoot with their guns then?”

Other humans, Lighteyes, just other humans.”

(Noises of amazement and disbelief)

 

THE INNER CITY FOX

The Internet sites all agree that foxes are more likely in suburbia than in the inner city but I think they ignore some important features of the inner city which foxes can frequent in relative safety and around which they are likely to find sufficient food: railroad lines and their banks, canal and river banks, parks, allotments, cemeteries and derelict sites. One can’t get much closer to Dublin’s inner city than Parnell Square, yet I have seen foxes in a laneway off there and also squeezing through the railings to enter the Garden of Remembrance. They have been photographed near the Irish Parliament, the Dáil (though some people might say that’s less surprising with the number of scavengers nearby :). I’d be surprised if they are not to be found along the banks of the Dodder, the Liffey, the Tolka and both canals, also along the railway lines and in Glasnevin and other cemeteries.

Fox in Leinster House car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

Fox in Leinster House (Irish Parliament building) car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

 

According to one Internet site5, the urban fox population in Dublin may be growing too big for its own health, as the ready availability of food allows unhealthy individuals to exist, diseased and covered in mange infestation (mites that denude patches of fur). I would need to explore this argument before I could accept it.

I am familiar with the overpopulation argument in the case of grazing animals or rodents, where too many individuals consume the available resources and the whole population suffers – a fate usually occurring when natural predators are not present to thin out the weaker individuals and thereby unconsciously preserve the general population in a healthier state.

But how would this work with regard to Dublin foxes? It seems unlikely that the food available is being reduced yet and if and when it is, one presumes healthier foxes will outcompete their sicker species members. Also, sick and undernourished foxes are less likely to come into oestrous and should they do so and conceive, to be able to raise their young. It seems to me most likely that what is occurring is that foxes that would normally have been winnowed out in the struggle of survival are now able to sustain themselves, which might be distressing to see but which will not necessarily have any effect on the healthy population.6 And will healthy individuals necessarily succumb to mange infection from infested individuals? And if they do now, might they not in time learn to chase infected individuals away?

Theories of overpopulation and scare stories about foxes attacking babies, cats and so on seem prompted by the intention to cull foxes, as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, proposed. Johnson seems unwilling to learn from history, as “there was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.”7 The average litter now may be four cubs but vixens have been known to bear up to a dozen and with a low population-to-high-food-sources ratio, are likely to bear a greater number of cubs. And a recent National Health Service survey in the UK indicated that nearly 60% of all stings and bites admitted to emergency rooms were inflicted by dogs8 but anyone suggesting a cull of urban dogs would probably find a gathering bearing pitchforks and burning torches outside their home.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

There have been claims that foxes kill and eat lambs, cats, other domestic pets and poultry. Most experts have concluded that if indeed a fox killed a lamb, such incidents are very rare. A ewe is capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal not much larger than a cat. However, foxes have been found to eat the afterbirths of lambs and would of course eat a stillborn lamb or one that died soon after birth, after which its mother would leave and the opportunist would move in; such incidents may have convinced some people in rural areas that the fox was the cause of the lamb’s death.

The Foxwatch study program in Bristol city filmed a number of confrontations between urban foxes and cats and found that in all cases, it was the fox that backed down. This makes sense, for a predator does not usually take on another predator of similar size except in defence of its young, its own life or, at times, its kill.

Yes of course foxes will kill poultry if they can get at them and are often accused in such situations of going on a killing spree. Foxes do kill and gather more food than they need at times and, like many other animals, hide it for recovery later, marking the spot with their scent. But when a fox breaks into a poultry pen and kills its inhabitants, it usually has to leave with what it can carry and will not be permitted to return for the rest. The answer for humans is to build secure pens into which to bring the poultry at night – and that applies also to rabbits kept as pets or for the table, etc. — or keep a dog outside, unleashed.

Scare stories and unscientific suggestions to one side, wild animal populations living alongside humans frequently do need management. All species of bats are protected in Ireland and Britain and should you find them in your attic you are not permitted to remove them but must instead notify the appropriate authorities. Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.

Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall9, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s. According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². 10 Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.

Given statistics of that sort, and information that the average litter is of four cubs, one may wonder why most urban dwellers see them but rarely and also why urban foxes are not a massively growing population. There are a number of controlling influences, ranging from the need to establish territory and fight to hold it, which may cost in injuries or even death, to deaths by traffic, the most common cause of fox death according to Internet sites (although how often do we see a dead fox on the road?). A common non-captive life-span of from two to four years and a fertility “window” of only three days for a vixen would be population-controlling factors and yet the allegedly stable population is puzzling, to me at least.

The rural fox tends to inhabit, widening when necessary, burrows already excavated by rabbits and badgers. In urban areas, the fox may have to excavate its own – under buildings and sheds and into railroad banks, for example – but will also use and expand other holes and gaps.

Many urban human dwellers, probably most, never see urban foxes, although they are becoming increasingly visible. They are active mostly at dusk and shortly before dawn and are mostly likely to be seen by people who rise very early for work, or who work at night or who are returning from late night socialising on foot, by bicycle or on foot.

In the Lewisham area of South-East London where I lived for some decades, I regularly saw them on the roads while cycling home from a late music session or a friend’s house. Lewisham would be considered midway between being city and suburban in nature and contained parks, cemeteries, allotments, streams or rivers and railway lines, houses with gardens but also high-rise blocks of local authority housing and very busy roads. I once passed about three yards near to an adult fox on the housing estate I lived on for awhile between Grove Park and Eltham (also in SE London). On my allotment in Catford, if I worked until dusk (which I did often enough when I managed to find the time), they would come out and play and dig for food less than ten yards away from me. And I frequently found trainers (running shoes) and balls they had taken from outside local houses and gardens, discarded on my allotment.

A number of theories have been forwarded for the penetration of urban areas by the fox, including the shameful wiping out of rabbit populations by state-inflicted plagues of myxomatosis but the real reasons are probably the same as those of the pigeon, rat and mouse – availability of food and home provided by humans and the adaptability of the species themselves.

 

THE MOST WIDESPREAD CARNIVORE ON EARTH

Indeed, the red fox has proved an adaptable animal – much like ourselves. She is an omnivore, as are we and can take her prey from animals as large as a goose to those as small as beetles or earthworms, also frequently eating wild fruit, especially in the Autumn. Studies in the former Soviet Union found that up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species were known to be consumed by her11. Mice and rats are frequently on her menu and her ancestors are thought to have developed as specialist rodent hunters in Eurasia five million years ago but her kind is now the most widespread carnivore on Earth, with 46 recognised subspecies.

The fox has binocular vision which is particularly effective at night, excellent hearing over distance, including the ability to detect the squeaking of mice at about 100 metres (330 ft) and capable of locating sounds to within one degree at 700–3,000 Hz, though less accurately at higher frequencies12, compensated for by an ability to hear at very low frequencies, including a rustle in grass or leaves and the burrowing of rodents underground. It has evolved many tactics for hunting, including tracking, ambush, stalking, leaping, pouncing and digging.

The fox can also run at a speed of 42 km/ hour, climb some trees, leap high and swim well. Considering the latter, its absence from many islands near to mainlands may come as a surprise but I think that is easy to explain through eradication by human agency.

The red fox is to be found everywhere in Europe (where she is thought to have reached 400,000 years ago) and in North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina. Sadly, in the mid-19th Century her species was introduced to Australia by European settlers (at first for sport and later perhaps to control the rabbit, also introduced there by Europeans), where a population of 7.2 million red foxes now is wreaking damage among rarer indigenous wildlife and is considered responsible for the extinction of a number of species. It is classified as the most harmful invasive species in Australia and eradication and population control measures are adopted against it there, as are also against feral domestic cats and dogs, also imported by Europeans.

The dingo is regarded as a controlling agent on red fox population growth in Australia though not totally effective due to the fox’s habit of burrowing; this is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is itself a wild dog most likely imported from Asia by Aborigine settlers somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 years ago and secondly, the red fox in Ireland and Britain does not tend to excavate its own burrows but rather to enlarge existing ones and then generally only for mating and rearing cubs. The Red Fox is currently absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The fox has been hunted by humans primarily for its fur, especially in winter when it is thicker and from foxes in the far north its silkiness is considered very valuable.

Reynard (one of the names traditionally given to the fox) has also been hunted for sport, usually by the aristocracy or country gentry, on horseback with hounds, an activity which gave rise to one of Oscar Wilde’s many memorable phrases: The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Of course, it was not only the English who did this but also the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (from which Wilde’s father himself came) and the upwardly-climbing Irish who aped them, ag sodar i ndiaidh na nuaisle.13 There have been numerous attempts to get fox-hunting banned and direct action such as protests and sabotage of hunts but it is still legal in Ireland and in Britain, though substantially reduced from a century ago.

Gamekeepers have also hunted the fox in order to keep it from killing ground-nesting birds such as wild pheasants, grouse and partridge, so that the landowner and his friends could shoot these birds down later14. Finally, the farmer has taken his toll, sending specially-bred dogs such as cairn terriers down earths to kill a hiding fox and in particular the cubs. The farmer wishes to protect his poultry but avoid the cost of building secure pens and so hunts foxes down; he could let his dogs roam his poultry area which would keep foxes away but dogs do often go chasing sheep too, which will also represent a loss to the farmer, either because the sheep are his or because his neighbours will claim compensation from him.

 

AN MAIDRÍN RUA and tradition

In Ireland, the fox was known as Sionnach, Madagh Rua (“red dog”) or Maidrín Rua (“little red dog”) and has given its name to a number of places, eg Cnoc an tSionnaigh (Fox Hill, Co. Mayo; another as a street name in Co. Laois); Oileán an tSionnaigh (Fox Island, Co. Galway); Carraig an tSionnaigh (Foxrock, Co. Dublin); possibly Léim an Mhadaigh, (Limavady, Co. Derry) and Lag an Mhadaigh (Legamaddy, Co. Down); possibly Ráth Sionnaigh (Rashenny, Co. Donegal), etc.15

Fox is also a family name and the Irish language version of it is Mac an tSionnaigh (literally “Fox’s son”).  The Maidrín Rua or Sionnach features in a number of songs in Irish and in English and here is one from the Irish language tradition of song but in a non-traditional choral arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bJyqbPxTwU.

Widely represented in folklore from China to Ireland, the fox is also mentioned in the Old Testament Bible and in Greek stories such as the fables of Aesop as well as among the Indigenous people of the Northern Americas. He is never stupid but his intelligence or cunning is also often portrayed as devious, tricky and even malicious. On the other hand, let us not forget that the anti-feudal Mexican hero created by USA writer Johnston McCulley (February 2, 1883 – November 23, 1958), who fights for the downtrodden and indigenous people and mocks the Mexican aristocracy and large landowners, always escaping them, used the nom-de-guerre of “El Zorro”, the fox.

There is a sexual connection too in the representation for the fox: for example in English a “foxy lady” is one with a high level of sexual attraction and in Castillian (Spanish) a “zorra” (vixen) is a pejorative term for a woman trading in sexual favours or “of low morals”16. Have we come around in a circle to where we began, to the vixen’s scream? I think so, but loaded now with a patriarchal outlook. Men can openly want and enjoy sex, of course, that is natural – but a woman? Surely not … or, if she does, she must be bad!

 

End.

 

 

Internet Sources:

http://www.thejournal.ie/fox-urban-dublin-1537602-Jun2014/

http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html

http://www.wildlifemanagement.ie/dublins-urban-foxes/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/our-confused-relationship-with-foxes-cull-them-feed-them-hunt-them-kill-them-1.1251806

http://www.newsfour.ie/2013/04/city-fox-controversy/

http://www.noticenature.ie/files/enfo/factsheet/en/WL33%20Foxes.pdf

http://www.conserveireland.com/mammals/red_fox.php

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_fox

https://books.google.ie/books?id=GjK93IUdAX4C&pg=PA96&lpg=PA96&dq=fox+can+hear+low+frequencies&source=bl&ots=BdWCosvgXg&sig=z76bvVOGnUjEQMnGTf4w44mqTyU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjN-dOm7v7QAhXoKsAKHQtsCGcQ6AEILTAD#v=onepage&q=fox%20can%20hear%20low%20frequencies&f=false

 

Footnotes:

1This is one of the very few sites to state that breeding may start in December http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html and Wikipedia also gave December as the start of the mating season and also as the month when the dog-fox’s testes are heaviest.

2Young females may remain another season and help care for the next litter of cubs.

3Although one article, without giving a reference, stated that foxes have been in Dublin since Victorian times.

6Other feature which makes this claim suspect are a number of scare items in the article: a) the sensationalist reference to the alleged danger to a baby from a fox in a bedroom and a link to the article reporting this event. Such an event, supposing it occurred, must be on a level of likelihood way below the danger to babies from, for example, pet cats and dogs. Also b) the reference to the danger of contracting roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause toxocariasis in children, while not however mentioning how low that risk is and that infection for children is most likely to be encountered from dogs and cats.

9Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin’s urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

12Ibid

13“Trotting after the nobles”, a derogatory phrase in Irish.

14Gamekeepers in Ireland and Britain also shot, poisoned or trapped badgers, otters, pine martens, stoats, escaped mink, eagles, hawks, buzzards, crows and magpies and often hung their carcasses in near their lodges to display their diligence in their tasks

16Often the condemnation of “low morals” is applied to a sexually active female but not to a sexually active male.

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