Full story and comments:
Full story and comments:
13 February 2013
Rare cases of foxes biting children cause uproar, but culling won't cut
numbers -- it is our behaviour that needs addressing, says an ecologist
In the UK, whenever wildlife are seen to be posing a problem, it goes
without saying that the culprits are branded as overabundant – be they
badgers, grey squirrels or foxes. I cannot remember how often I have been
told that foxes need to be culled because they have no natural predators.
So it was almost inevitable that when a baby in Bromley in the suburbs
of south-east London was bitten by a fox last week, Boris Johnson, the mayor
of London, demanded that the city's many borough councils tackle the
"growing problem" of
which he called a "pest and a menace".
Fortunately, cases of foxes
biting children are very rare, but whenever they happen the media is whipped
into a frenzy and such language dominates the coverage. Feeding this frenzy
may be good for Johnson's image, but it sidesteps the facts.
there is a vastly greater risk that your child will be attacked by a pet cat
or dog, especially your own. Nearly a third of UK dog owners have been
bitten or attacked by a dog, sometimes with horrendous consequences. There
thousands of hospital admissions for dog bites each year, many resulting
in injury to the face requiring plastic surgery, and with children worst
affected. On average, dog attacks result in roughly one child and one adult
being killed each year in the UK.
Tried and failed
People who call for a fox cull also forget or ignore the fact that it
has been tried before, and failed. Foxes started to colonise our cities in
the 1930s, when a house-building boom and suburban expansion created an
ideal habitat for both people and foxes – lower-density housing with bigger
gardens. From the late 1940s, the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries
started trapping and shooting foxes in south-east London to try to curb the
growing red menace. Yet fox numbers continued to increase and they spread
into the inner suburbs.
In 1970 the responsibility for fox control passed
to the London boroughs, and many in south and west London started trapping
and shooting foxes, and gassing their dens with cyanide.
had a full-time fox control officer who killed over 300 foxes a year, mostly
by shooting them in people's gardens with a 12-bore shotgun. For two days a
week he was assisted by another council employee. However, their combined
efforts had no discernible impact on fox numbers and Bromley, along with the
other London boroughs, ceased its fox control measures in the 1980s.
could not even stop the early spread of foxes into London, let alone reduce
numbers, an all-too-familiar story with foxes generally.
The lack of
success was hardly surprising. In the city of Bristol in western England,
when foxes are removed from a territory, others take their place in around
four days. Studies in Scotland and
Wales both suggest that killing foxes leads to a slightly higher
breeding population the next year, probably because more foxes move in to
contest the vacant area than were there in the first place.
Hype over science
Culling foxes now is likely to be both
expensive and counterproductive. And it will not target the problem: the
individual foxes that actually pose a risk to people. But the British press
feeds on hype, not science.
Equally frustrating, whenever fox bites
sporadically hit the headlines, is the number of experts that suddenly
appear claiming that urban fox numbers are increasing, as are attacks on
children. I have never heard of many of these "experts" and see remarkably
little evidence to support their assertions.
Bristol is the only city
in the UK where the fox population has been monitored long-term: here fox
numbers slowly fluctuate, with occasional dramatic changes, such as when the
skin disease sarcoptic mange arrived in spring 1994. This hit Bristol's
foxes hard. By spring 1996 over 95 per cent had died, and the city had
become a vulpine ghost town. I never heard a single person celebrating their
disappearance, only mourning their loss.
Since then fox numbers have
slowly recovered: we predicted this would take 15 to 20 years, as proved to
be the case. Foxes are only just returning to their earlier densities. Much
the same appears to have happened in other cities across the UK following
the northward and westward spread of sarcoptic mange. Many urban areas still
have fewer foxes than they did before the disease broke out.
No bigger or bolder
Interestingly, before mange, foxes that
could be described as "bold" or "friendly" were relatively common in
Bristol. My impression is that we now have fewer bold foxes. We are still
trying to work out why this may have happened. But there is no evidence that
urban foxes generally are getting bigger or bolder, or pose more of a risk
With all this misinformation, it may seem surprising to
hear that we actually know more about urban foxes in the UK than rural
foxes. Far more. In fact, there is far more published data on urban foxes in
the UK than on foxes anywhere else in the world. This makes the misleading
media coverage even more puzzling and worrying.
That is not to say
there is not a growing problem: there is. But it is human rather than fox
behaviour that is the issue. More and more television programmes show people
handling wildlife; macho presenters have to touch, catch or wrestle wild
animals. When people follow their example, such as by encouraging foxes to
take food from their hands or come into their kitchen to be fed, problems
And that's the irony; first the media publicises
people showing off their "tame" foxes, be it feeding them by hand on
wildlife shows or in their homes or keeping them as pets, then goes into a
misinformed frenzy over the problems that invariably follow.
Harris is professor of environmental sciences at the University of
Bristol, UK, and founded its Mammal Research Unit. He spent six years
studying foxes in London and launched his long-term study of Bristol's foxes
in 1977. It has been running ever since.