Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Town fox, country fox.

How often do you see foxes on the Reserve? Ten years ago I used to see a fox almost every day. There was one that sun-bathed on top of Mount Jim where we stored soil before the Environmental Education Centre was built, another would hang out in the orchard behind the tractor yard and a third would regularly patrol the beetle banks in the arable fields. If you scanned the shore of Heronry North from the Kingfisher Hide you would almost always find a fox and when the lakes were frozen they could be seen crossing the ice to get to the islands. When we cut the hay in our meadow there would be foxes out looking for mice and voles, even before we took the tractor off the field. On any day you could randomly come across a fox almost anywhere, even in the garden, because they were everywhere. Where are they now?

Because I look for the signs such as spraints and kills, I know they are still there, but why are they harder to see? Maybe the increased number of visitors is making them more shy? Maybe it's the increase in dogs, especially big dogs? Perhaps the vegetation has grown more dense, providing more cover? Or could it be that I am not out and about as much as I used to be?

All of those factors might go towards an explanation of why I don't see foxes as often as I did, but what if there simply are not as many foxes at Paxton as there used to be? Why might that be?

Could it be disease? The fox on the left just walked up to me one day and asked to be picked up! It was obviously unwell, but I guessed it was used to being handled and had probably been hand-reared. Off he went to the fox hospital where he soon recovered and started biting everyone in sight. Not a pet then. I have not seen a sick fox since.

On farms and estates where hunting is prevalent, foxes are usually "controlled" as "vermin". While our neighbours may shoot the odd fox, I'm not convinced that they kill many of ours. They always shot them in the past and yet we saw them daily on the Reserve and I have no evidence that they have stepped up their keepering effort. So they are probably not being shot or poisoned.

Are they short of food? Guessing that rabbits are the staple diet for many foxes all year round, I don't think we have any concerns in that direction! Perhaps the Council's wheelie-bin scheme has made it more difficult for foxes to get scraps from the village. I just don't know, it's all pure guesswork.

I have one interesting observation though. We may be seeing less foxes, but we are also seeing more badgers. Do they compete?

It seems that they don't compete directly because the badger's staple diet is earthworms but all the same, in any territorial dispute, badgers always win. Maybe an increase in badgers leads directly to a decrease in foxes? Or maybe, as foxes decline, badgers seize the opportunity to increase? If either of these is true, I would say that, given the fact that badgers tend to be dominant rather than opportunistic, it is more likely that the increase in badgers could lead to a decrease in foxes, but I'm not totally convinced. Are you?

Looking at this another way, according to DEFRA's own research in several study areas, the recent badger cull has led to a doubling of fox numbers on some farms. It seems pretty obvious to me that the removal of the dominant predator would lead to an increase in predator number two. If this is true, then the converse might also be true; that an increase in badgers would lead to a decrease in foxes.

Little Paxton's foxes are pretty wily characters, shy of humans and their dogs. Despite the increasing human population they remain rural foxes. If you visit any big city you will stand a much better chance of a close encounter with a fox than out here in the sticks and that will be with an urban fox; quite a different animal.

My son lives in Finchley Central ("two and sixpence, from Golders Green on the Northern Line" *) and there are urban foxes in his garden. I arrived at dusk to see two of them and even managed to take a few pictures through the kitchen window. They didn't hang around for long, but they were totally relaxed. I returned the next evening at the same time and saw one of them again, only six feet away.

Finchley is not Watership Down. I couldn't be precise but I would put the rabbit population at virtually zero. The place isn't full of partridges or pheasants either, in fact I reckon that the commonest bird in Finchley is the magpie, so the natural food available to foxes is limited to mice, rats and berries.

Urban foxes are fast-food addicts and Finchley is fast-food heaven. Every other shop seems to be a take-away and that's ideal for the Finchley foxes. Given the vast amount of food available the population must be limited by other factors. Quite a few are hit on the roads and some of them look quite unhealthy, probably because of their bad diet and the high density of the population allows disease to spread more quickly than in a sparce rural population.

I like to see foxes. The gardens of Finchley would be dull places without them. Even grey squirrels and magpies bring the place to life, but you can still find some wild gems. Great spotted woodpeckers, robins, wrens, tits, goldcrests, even a nuthatch can be found in the local park. At sunset, just before the foxes emerged, a peregrine falcon cruised the rooftops of Finchley Central; I didn't expect that.

* Spot the song, Finchley Central, by the New Vaudeville Band