Urban foxes. Whether it’s erroneous calls for culling in the media or a blogger getting overly worked up about it, you just can’t get away from them. I’ve tried to avoid it, every year Springwatch do another feature covering the same ground, and every year I turn off. Pariah or persecuted, it can get incredibly subjective. Discussions on foxes elicit fierce passions, as anyone who has waded in on either side of the argument will know. There have been some calls for culling of urban foxes, and this is no doubt an over the top knee-jerk reaction to a few incidents. But due consideration should be given to both sides of the argument.
Now free comment sections on newspaper websites are not perhaps the most logical places, but the blinkered thinking can often be quite staggering. So much so that you have to question the posters motives. It is probably no stretch at all to imagine that a self-professed Tory posting ill thought out pro-hunting arguments on the Guardian website may not be all he seems, and visa-versa. So lets look at some stats:
Well, that was my intention with this paragraph, but it seems it isn’t quite that straightforward. The last estimate, from the 1980s, put the total urban fox population at 33,000. – There may not be, and, according to the Guardian, there is a consensus that there is not likely to have been an increase since then. This is the pro-urban fox position. However as any good scientist will tell you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No evidence does not necessarily mean something is not happening, it generally depends how hard someone has looked for that evidence, and with no population estimates available since the 80’s it would seem no one has looked too hard. Anecdotal evidence, overly subjective though it is, should be given due consideration and the majority of these suggest that if not an increase in population, then urban foxes are at the very least becoming more visible. Either way, this is extremely pertinent. Population pressures and social behaviour are potential contributory factors in fox-human interactions.
Ask someone on the pro-urban fox side of the fence why they think they should not be controlled and you may elicit the response ‘they help to control the rat population’. This is a double standard I have come across frequently, and one that both sides of the argument are guilty of. You can’t have it both ways. Again, there is no quantifiable evidence for this and if you dismiss something because you have not found any evidence for it, you cannot then use anecdotal evidence to provide a positive slant on your argument. Yes, foxes do kill rats (and mice) and other small mammals, but do they exert any population control? Rats are tricky to catch, can bolt down small holes and can defend themselves if needs be. There are most definitely much easier pickings out there in the urban supermarket for the average fox. – And again, this argument does segue into an interesting tangential example of double standards; rat control is presumably a good thing. Why is this? Despite their reputation, rats can be incredibly clean animals and they carry no greater threat from transmitted pathogens than foxes (presuming no new plague outbreak, and yes I know that’s black rats). Perhaps it is the proximity that is an issue? Perhaps they are less appealing to look at?
Dogs attack many, many more people than foxes do – This is not an argument. I cannot reiterate this enough, and yet still frequently have to. This has absolutely no relevance to the issue of urban foxes. None whatsoever. It is a clear example of ‘whataboutary’. It is a Straw Man (or Straw Dog?) argument that dogs are more dangerous. No one on the anti-urban fox side of the argument has ever suggested anything otherwise. They may both be canine, but they are completely different species. Put briefly, consider the relationship of the two to humans and how often dogs come into contact with humans as opposed to foxes. How often in the last year have you been within jaws grasp of a dog? A fox?
Taking a look from the other side of the fence, an often-proposed anti- argument is that foxes kill pets – This is again an issue with little evidence, relying solely on anecdote. It seems everyone has seen or can point to footage on youtube of cats and foxes chasing each other around the garden, usually with the cat coming out on top. Foxes don’t kill cats, that’s the perceived wisdom amongst many. But dogs kill cats. I came home once to find my very harmless dogs had killed my cat. Foxes are wild animals. It’s no great leap to believe that with the increased overlap between the two that is occurring in urban environments that such incidence will happen. Not often, again, as with rats, there is not a huge deal of benefit in it for them, but the huge number of ‘Missing Cat’ posters may attest to a hidden conflict (again, that is a hugely speculative presumption).
Much of this is playing devils advocate, but there are blinkered arguments on either side. I would hate to see a cull of urban foxes sparked by a single incident of human attack, but it is likely there will be further incidence. With increased population
pressures and loss of the few suitable green spaces in urban areas, interaction with humans will become more and more unavoidable. Foxes must not be given special treatment, and must be considered in the same context as rats, mice, pigeons, geese, with scientific evidence backing up any decision. Not just because there seems to be a lot of them about.
Really though, the whole argument is rather facile. In these situations, what must a citizen of rural India, or places with real wilderness, real threats from nature, think? We frown, rightly, on the destruction of the rainforest, shooting of tigers, elephants, animals that can quite easily leave your average farmer as a small damp patch in the dirt and are a legitimate danger. And yet, a fox snaps at us and we are advocating a cull. The economy takes a downturn and we want to carve up ancient woodlands, our equivalent of rainforests, for a needless vanity project. To those we berate for planting more palm oil, trapping tigers or selling rhino horn, we must look ridiculous.