Please note that many of these articles were originally written for the old GB Wildlife site in between 2008 – 2010 and organisations may have changed since then.
Wildlife Blogs – Spring brings a new batch of fox cubs
Voted one of the most popular British mammals, red foxes are a popular sight in rural and urban Britain. Personally, no matter how many times I have caught a glimpse of a fox, I am always enthralled by their presence. Be it watching adult foxes in my garden or cubs playing in the field opposite to my house, I am never tired of seeing them.
I admire foxes, as they are resourceful and intelligent masters of survival. They can live in almost any habitat, being found in deserts, tundra and urban habitats. Most of the time, unknown to us, there is a fox nearby, perhaps asleep on the roof of a house, underneath a shed or deep inside a hedge. The fact they live their lives so close to us, but yet so hidden from view, makes them a source of fascination.
Foxes have been studied at the University of Bristol by Stephen Harris (Professor of Environmental Sciences) and his research group (including myself in the past six years), for over three decades. In that time we have built up a considerable portrait of the life and times of foxes, yet still after all these years there are many things we do not yet know. We receive many phone calls regarding foxes each year. The busiest time of the year for enquiries/complaints/reports of foxes occurs in spring, when fox families are the most active and visible.
Although foxes are easy to see – most of us have a story or two to tell about them – arguably the most enjoyable time of the year to be watching them is now. Having mated a couple of months ago in January/February, most vixens give birth now straddling the end of March/beginning of April.
Mum and dad are attentive parents: mum hardly leaves the den for the first few weeks of the cubs’ lives, lactating, cleaning and attending to her young offspring. Dad brings food to her while she is den-bound and, later on, feeds the cubs too.
Towards the end of April/beginning of May, the cubs start to venture outside the den and explore the surroundings. At this time, the cubs start to take solid food and, to satiate four to five growing youngsters, all the family cooperates. As evenings get longer and warmer, cubs are more visible making this a prime time to watch foxes.
Where food is abundant, as in most urban environments, additional family member may help raise cubs along with the parents. These are usually (but not always) offspring from previous years who have reached adulthood and instead of wandering off (dispersing) to look for their own territory, have decided to stay.
At Bristol University, some of my colleagues investigated which benefits these additional foxes called ‘helpers’ bring – if any – to the group as a whole. They looked at fox groups of different sizes and asked whether larger groups raised more cubs up to a certain age. They found that, more or less, all foxes in a group contributed to feeding and that, the more helpers there were, the less the parents worked to feed the cubs. The cubs did not survive any better simply because there were more helpers. In other words, the parents worked less hard the more help they obtained.
The activity of fox parents and helpers is focused around the den where the cubs spend most of the first three months of their lives. Whoever has been lucky (or unlucky, depending on the view point) enough to have a fox den nearby, knows what this means.
At the den, one adult fox is usually ‘babysitting’ the youngsters, other adults are busy searching the territory for food to bring back and the cubs can be seen playing all sorts of games (tug-of-war, king-of-the-castle, play chase, play fight) flattening everything in their path. No wonder many people phone us for advice!
People have always been fascinated by this canid (that is, member of the dog family). From old literature to modern advertising, the image of the fox has been portrayed as cunning and deceitful, but also successful and to be admired.
To dispel a few myths about this animal and to provide a source of information to the media and the public, Stephen Harris decided to create a website that would contain research-based facts about foxes summarising the work done by his research group on rural and urban foxes in over thirty years of effort and by other researchers worldwide.
The result is thefoxwebsite, a website that aims to become the to-go stop for any kind of information on foxes from their ecology, diseases and role in agriculture, to people’s attitudes to foxes.
Launched in November 2007, the website has been praised by many local authorities as a useful tool and it is going to be expanded to include more research, information on other fox populations worldwide, further advice on conflicts with foxes and more.
So, if you are interested in foxes and would like to know more, go and have a gander at thefoxwebsite, I hope you enjoy the visit!
© Graziella Iossa