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Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER TIM MATTHEWS: For Fox Sake

Tim Matthews is one of my best friends, and also - coincidentally - one of the most controversial figures in contemporary forteana. He has been involved with the CFZ for nearly a decade now, raising eyebrows wherever he goes.


Golfers are idiots. They say the do it for relaxation but they could go for a walk in the countryside. They say they like the exercise but they could go swimming. They say they do business deals on the links but it’s just an excuse for a jolly and they could always make a phone call or meet in the local Latte house.

I don’t care what anyone says but various recent stories might, you think, shed some light on the extent to which we have become disconnected from nature and reality. Here’s one. 18-hole motor mouth Donald Trump comes over to Scotland, big and bad and with comb over in full effect, and decides to use his considerable wealth and bullying Apprentice-a-like methods to influence local people and their elected representatives in to allowing him to construct his dream $2 billion golf course in Aberdeen. Who will benefit? Five-star hotel guests, the usual rich suspects and the “really lucky” local workers who might get £6 an hour and a nine iron’s full of abuse from the target-driven American entrepreneur and “his people“. New Money from the New World at great expense to land and wildlife.

Meanwhile, in London, we are expected to believe, despite most evidence to the contrary, that urban foxes are a “real pest” and “a serious danger” to the local community. And who by? A pest-control “expert” called Bruce Lindsay-Smith who has enjoyed killing foxes for the last 25 years despite the fact that killing them does not, as scientific studies at Bristol University have shown, make a jot of difference to their numbers! Ah yes, Lindsay-Smith is working for a north London golf club by the way. See what I mean? Those bloody golfers again! Apparently, a famous rock star in Hampstead employed Lindsay-Smith to kill foxes on his property. In today‘s society celebrity and fame is an excuse for any excess no matter how stupid the celebrity. (Jordan comes to mind). Despite claims about foxes spreading diseases and attacking pets, the science mentioned above suggests that in any urban area, foxes will attack no more than 8% of caged animals left out in the open (and one wonders who is leaving their caged animals out in the open without adequate protection), which means that 92% are OK all the time.

In any case, isn’t this is a good example of nature taking its course? Have pets in the garden and the naturally predatory fox can take advantage. We seem to have forgotten this. Farmers shoot foxes if they see them on their land. That’s life. It’s what happens. Hunts singularly fail to reduce fox numbers but the Countryside Alliance talks up its policies for “managing” wildlife numbers. All food for thought, eh?

There are 250,000 foxes in the UK and the majority live in urban environments and started to colonise cities during the early 1930s. They have always had a tense relationship with urban dwellers due to claims about foxes “spreading diseases” (despite their being little or no evidence to support this claim) and, more realistically, the fact that foxes scavenge.

Where I live, which is truly Urban (!), I am always thrilled to see foxes. There are many of them roaming the nearby streets and yet no pets have been harmed as far as I’m aware. Cats who stay out at night have an uneasy relationship with the fox, for obvious reasons, but foxes are only really dangerous during late Spring/early Summer when they are rearing cubs. In the park behind the house, I often see foxes at night time on expeditions. They are probably the most exciting example of wildlife you’ll see locally and yet one does not get the sense that the neighbours are at all unhappy to see their nocturnal visitors out and about.

Indeed, it is more a sense of wonder and you can hear people saying, “oooh I saw a fox last night” as if this is somehow a rare thing and yet they have been seen for over 70 years in the built environment! The surprise is due to lack of knowledge, lack of education and a disconnection with the world around us. To really appreciate these creatures you have to experience them, see them, and perhaps most importantly, accept them as part of your world.

Even local councils appear to have got the message. Lindsay-Smith and his .22 toting gun addicts won’t get much work from the public purse as it is clear that fox numbers are stable (and growing only by a small percentage in some urban areas), sustainable and have reached their carrying capacity in most areas. Simple methods to deter them from your property, should you want to are simple and could require you to do as little as tying up your bin bags and putting them in a dustbin!

Last Monday morning I arrived at work at 0645am and was thrilled to see two foxes across the road. I stood and watched them and they were clearly aware of me. It was cold and bright and the pair looked magnificent as they scooted across a car park towards their lair. Now it’s snowed, you can see several sets of tracks and footprints from our close neighbours and it never ceases to amaze me how you can be working away and within a hundred feet a family of foxes can be living in perfect harmony in the middle of Greater Manchester.

Let us live and learn, and understand our mutual relationship with the animals around us….

1 comment:

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Just a note on fox biology here, in particular numbers. Fox numbers aren't what you'd term stable, but vary with time of year. Round about now we're at low ebb, with about quarter of a million foxes; the vast majority of these will be breeding-age ones, since the first frosts of winter normally kill off the geriatric and too immature ones.

After these give birth in March and April, the population will jump to somewhere over a couple of million, and decline slowly over the course of the year back down to the quarter-million that it is now, with the sharpest drops occurring just after the foxes give birth and around the first frosts of autumn (which drives the worms down deeper in the soil and limits the food supply).

As you point out, the Countryside Alliance doesn't advocate complete elimination of a fox population but merely control of numbers. The Welsh gun and hound packs (a half-dozen foxhounds to move foxes, a line of shotguns above to kill them) strive every year to locally extinct foxes in the areas they operate in; they never manage it completely. Lowland pheasant shoots do a similar thing, but again usually hit the law of diminishing returns quite quickly. About the only control measure I know of which does achieve local extinction is gassing of earths, and this is now fortunately illegal (both cymag and hydrogen cyanide are now banned).

Really, what most country organisations tend to do is try to cull fox numbers to a low-ish level and maintain them thus, so as to retain a key mid-level predator; they're helped in this by the main UK predator of UK foxes, the motor car.

The thing to watch in future here is deer populations and in particular the proportion of elderly or diseased members in unmanaged deer herds; if this suddenly nosedives then we will be in the fascinating position of having a new top predator in the country.