Having a rather more than passing interest in railway matters, I was enjoying a break from modest work in a very hot garden by leaning on the wall which separates my property from that of Network Rail when a movement in the long grass caught my eye. Lo and behold, in the middle of a distinctly warm afternoon, a rather scruffy-looking fox appeared very determinedly making it way along a now-discernible path through the vegetation which covered the side of the shallow railway cutting. Darker brown in colour than many of the red foxes which I have seen and sufficiently large to be a mature animal … male at a guess … it glanced up, saw me, turned tail and made its way back whence it had come, disappearing into a stand of trees which grow on Network Rail’s property behind my next-door neighbour’s house.
I think that, despite the semi-rural nature of my home’s immediate environment, this fox could properly be described as an ‘urban’ fox, resident close to the railway station which serves a small town and wary of people, although plainly not afraid of us. It is generally reckoned that foxes began the evolutionary process of living in towns some 80-or-so years ago when they were first recorded living and breeding in cities like London and Bristol, although they had, presumably, been edging ever-closer to rural settlements before they were seen in cities. The principal reason for this shift in their preferred habitat … for it is thought that the number of urban foxes is on the increase while the number of rural foxes is in decline … is the more readily accessible food supplies of towns and villages. Rural foxes have a seasonally-varied diet, eating more earthworms and birds in spring and early summer, more fruit in the autumn, more small mammals in winter and more insects in summer. Contrary to a frequently-heard assertion, foxes are scavengers by nature rather than hunters; and tales of foxes raiding chicken coops, carrying off kittens or taking puppies from outdoor kennels describe extremely rare events, probably occasioned by an extreme shortage of other food. Foxes do, however, perform a useful role in the countryside by eating the bodies of small animals and birds which have died of natural causes or been killed in an accident or incident.
The average fox is not particular about its meals, eating many food items which are readily available in towns. “Most eat a wide range of food items, the bulk of which is deliberately provided by householders, and not scavenged from bins,” I learn from the internet, admitting to being initially surprised to read this although, on reflection, I realise that my only neighbour who deliberately puts out delectable food for ‘Foxy’ is putting out more than enough to feed Foxy’s wife and cubs as well! I read, further, that “foxes seem to prefer those cities and suburbs with medium to large size back garden, which provide all the diverse array of food, cover during the daytime and den sites that the foxes need.’
Since foxes are territorial and stake out quite large areas as their territory … presumable as an innate consequence of the scarcity of winter food in the countryside … there is normally much more than enough food to support Brer Fox and his brood in an urban environment. My fox was scruffy because it had been hard at work feeding its cubs and was now moulting in readiness for a new coat to see it through the winter. Soon, the young will leave this territory to seek their own space. Some will succeed, increasing the local urban fox population; other will die in traffic accidents or be poisoned by accident or by design; and the odd one will live long enough to die of old age. And that’s the story of 21st century fox!