Caithness Field Club

Do We Persecute Foxes Unfairly?
Malcolm Smith

Foxes are vermin. They can be killed legally by shooting, hunting with dogs, cage trapping and by gassing their earths. These, and maybe other illegal methods of killing them, account for the estimated 80,000 or so foxes slaughtered in Britain every year. In 1951, a Ministry of Agriculture bulletin (Wild Mammals and the Land) concluded its section on the fox with the battle cry, "War on the fox must continue to be the order of the day and such warfare must be carried on by every means and with every weapon that Is both practicable and humane."

Little has changed in the 1980s. Few country people have kindly regard for the mammal that Archibald Thorburn, the naturalist and illustrator, regarded as "by far the most intelligent and cunning of all our beasts" and the one about which "endless tales hove been told of the wiles and subterfuges employed to escape its enemies or circumvent its prey" . Perhaps farmers and shepherds who rear sheep have the least regard for these virtues; they blame foxes for heavy losses of lambs throughout much of Britain. This accusation alone accounts for a large proportion of the foxes killed, the intention being to reduce their populations. But not only has this objective not been realised (foxes are increasing in numbers) but also the presumed heavy losses of lambs to foxes are not borne out by the facts.

Foxes are not strict carnivores - they also eat fruit and berries - and of the around 500g of food which each adult requires per day, small mammals (voles in particular) are often the main item of diet. But foxes are catholic in their taste, taking rabbits, rats, mice, birds, frogs, insects, sheep and deer carrion, and scavenging on sheep and cattle afterbirths or in domestic refuse.

In areas where sheep are traditionally reared, according to Dr. Raymond Hewson of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, who has long studied foxes, and especially their diet, foxes kill somewhere between 1 and 4 per cent of lambs. Considering that on the bleak Argyll hills, where Hewson made his studies, up to half of each year's lambs die before they reach maturity - mainly due to uncomplicated starvation during the first day of their lives - the proportion killed by foxes is almost insignificant. In an Australian study, 14 out of 314 deaths of newly born lambs were found to be due to predation by foxes. Actual lamb losses resulting from fox predation in other important sheep-rearing areas - such as the Welsh uplands - may be lower still because of the abundance of alternative prey, such as hares and rabbits, which are scarce on many Scottish hills.

Hewson and his colleagues find that sheep carrion forms a major item in 36 per cent, sometimes more, of fox droppings during the winter months when there is an abundant supply of dead animals. Outside the winter period, sheep carrion is not an important food.

Although in Scotland something like 9000 foxes are killed annually, human control is considered to be ineffective in limiting their population. Ecologist and naturalist well know that the reason is probably that such control Is replacing, rather than augmenting, natural death: the weakest fall victim to man. Locally there may be an appreciable reduction in the number of breeding pairs but this is often compensated, by a higher rate of survival of cubs. If there were a rabies outbreak, any attempt to reduce fox populations to a low level to curtail the spread of the disease would require an enormous expenditure of money and effort.

Most farmers are unwilling to accept that foxes kill few lambs; they frequently attribute increases in fox populations in the face of substantial human persecution to other factors. One often hears blamed the abundance of conifer plantations; they are assumed to harbour large numbers of foxes which prey on lambs on adjacent open hill land or pastures. Hewson's studies show this assumption to be wrong. In a survey of an area of large conifer forests and open hill land In Argyll, the foxes that lived in the forest mostly ate red deer carrion and field voles, whereas the foxes that lived on the open hills mostly ate sheep carrion and field voles. If foxes were merely harbouring in forests and seeking prey on the open hill, their diets would have been the some as those living on open hill land. Some evidence suggested that foxes living on the open hill may hunt partly In conifer plantations because of the abundance of small rodents. With small blocks of conifer plantation, things may not be as clear cut because foxes may then have to feed partly on the open hill because the forest would be incapable of supplying them with a full diet.

The praises of foxes are sung but rarely! The Scottish naturalist James Locke estimated that one fox will eat a thousand field voles in the winter months and each vole consumes 23 pounds of grass - a fair quantity If your livelihood depends on sheep rearing. The Bulgarian zoologist Atanassov examined the stomachs of 201 foxes and hundreds of droppings. He found remains of small rodents in 194 stomachs, and in these they constituted about half the food consumed. Another study concluded that the diet of foxes, consisted of 57 per cent agriculturally harmful animals, 27 agriculturally useful animals, and 16 per cent vegetable food.

The fox is undoubtedly a highly adaptable creature - witness its success in colonising many suburban and urban areas (the city of Bristol has over 200 family groups) in recent decades. On the open hills and upland pastures of Britain where sheep-rearing is a major land use, foxes have exploited the abundant supply of sheep carrion, especially during difficult winter months. Perhaps it is not surprising that farmers have assumed that foxes kill large numbers of lambs. But if farmers and other landowners were presented with, and showed willing to accept, the scientific facts they might come to see the continuing persecution of foxes as unnecessary. The relentless slaughter of large numbers of such fine creatures should not be based on a wrong assumption.

(Reprinted from the New Scientist No 1400, 8 March 1984)