London celebrations

London Foxes: Urban Threat or Misunderstood?

There’s a fox on the loose in London – and he’s got DJ-turned-author Nike trainer Annie Mac. It was a sunny day in May when a particularly cheeky fox snuck into her living room to steal the mint green Air Force 1. A day later, Ricky Gervais uploaded footage of a family of foxes playing on his lawn. A bear cub, with a pile of dirt behind him, was trying to make his way to China.

The urban fox has been creeping more and more into the lives of Londoners lately, rummaging through rubbish bins, frolicking in gardens and making THAT late-night mating call. Foxes, through no fault of their own, have come to symbolize London’s squalor; Seeing a fox on the steps of Downing Street is as common these days as excited revelers.

While foxes have been present in the capital since the end of the First World War, their numbers have exploded over the past three decades. The city’s growing sprawl — providing foxes with free lodging and leftover takeaways — may help explain these increases. The London Wildlife Trust estimates there are 10,000 foxes in the city.

Having lived side by side for so long, one would expect a natural harmony to have developed between foxes and humans. However, most cultural references to foxes belie some unease on our part. A fox is described in the Cambridge Dictionary as “one who is clever and good at tricking people”. It is “fox by name, fox by nature” for the institutions that have chosen the animal as a brand. Think Fox News, accused of being good at deceiving people about the truth, and Foxy Bingo: good at snatching grandkids’ legacies.

The supposedly cunning nature of a fox has made it a creature of public condemnation over the years. When, in 2013, a fox attacked a little boy in London, then-mayor Boris Johnson was quick to mock the London fox as “a pest and a threat”. The attack caused an outpouring of antagonism towards the animal, with people looking for ways not only to discourage the foxes, but to exterminate them altogether. Amazingly, in 2020, at least two foxes were killed in South East London by an assailant armed with a crossbow.

Foxes playing in the garden of comedian Ricky Gervais

/ Ricky Gervais

Today, foxes continue to sow discord. ‘Foxes are no good’, a disgruntled Londoner said online, ‘stealing our rubbish. Having loud sex’. While some people tend to complain, others have reason to be irritated.

“A fox got into my house somehow getting around the locked cat flap,” said Max, who lived in Bromley at the time. “He started eating the cat food, putting out the kitchen trash can and pooping on the living room rug. He ran away when I got home from work. The problem with foxes in London is that people think they’re cute and feed them. They are too bold now and have such a massive population in London that there is no point in trying to do anything. They have already won. As Max feels defeated, others fight back. In a shocking turn of events, some middle-aged men have begun marking their gardens with their own scent in an effort to deter foxes from their property – often slipping under cover of darkness to do the deed in their slippers.

Others collected male hair scraps from the barbershop to scatter in their gardens. In a response that defies logic, a woman proceeded to “throw slices of meat at them from her window”.

The effectiveness of these old wives’ tale solutions is up for debate. However, Trevor Williams, founder of The Fox Project, insists that discouraging foxes is easier than most think. “Natural repellents, which you can buy over the counter at garden centers and hardware stores, work well to keep foxes away. Whereas if you just bring in a pest controller and kill him, all you’re doing is leaving a shelter vacant for another fox to move into within two or three weeks at the most. In this case, you have not paid anything.

A fox’s supposedly cunning nature has made it an outcast over the years – today it continues to divide

But not everyone wants to keep the foxes away. More and more Londoners are taking photos of foxes around the city, feeding foxes in their gardens and seeking professional information on how best to deal with these creatures. we are a nation of animal lovers after all.

A recent study found that urban foxes, having adapted to city life, are more like domestic dogs. By comparing urban foxes to rural foxes, the urban fox was found to have smaller brains: an evolutionary sign of close interaction with humans. The urban fox also had a shorter snout with a less powerful bite – perfectly evolved for preying on city garbage bags.

Dennis, a fox lover from Brixton, believes that if there is a problem with these domesticated foxes, humans created it. “We leave so much trash and food on the streets, of course the foxes will come. It’s an easy food for foxes, but it’s not healthy at all. When foxes eat human food and get sick, Dennis continues, it’s our job to provide them with veterinary care. North of the river, in Golders Green, Tom and Jiyeon care for the foxes in their garden as pets. “We usually give them two or three packets of Sainsbury’s chicken wings every day,” says Tom, “or maybe some dog food.”

A fox walks past the front door of 10 Downing Street in central London on the eve of the British general election, 2015

/ AFP via Getty Images

The couple have made their garden a sanctuary where foxes from all walks of life pass. “We might have two or three pairs of little ones, but they tend to go away after about six months once they’ve grown,” Tom continues. “There are five other regular rollovers that come and go from time to time, but there is also a hardcore set that was puppies when we moved into the house. They are still there hanging out.

And when a human has custom-built a cabana for you to sunbathe in, why ever leave? “Tom built the shed out of old pieces of carpet and wood,” says Jiyeon. “We also hid a few cardboard boxes with bedding inside in the bushes. But the foxes are really mean – they take out the sheets and play with them on the lawn. Every time we put them back in, they take them out again. They prick the heads of the flowers in our garden, which is full of balls and gloves that don’t belong to us.

So why go to so much trouble to accommodate these troublemakers? “It’s very nice to have them seated, now I work from the kitchen and not from the office,” says Tom. “The kitchen door is fully glazed and one of the little houses I built is right next to it. So I’m tapping on my computer, and there’s a fox sleeping in a box right next to you. Being so close to wildlife is really nice.

Remove foxes from the equation and the rodent population will explode

Matt Maran, wildlife photographer, celebrates this closer interaction with nature. During lockdown, Matt regularly photographed foxes at his local housing estate – the products of which appear in his new book, Fox: Neighbour, Villain, Icon.

“I think people really came to appreciate the wildlife on their doorsteps around that time. Foxes are really gentle and non-aggressive creatures, I think more people have realized that in recent years. Fifty percent of an urban fox’s diet consists of natural foods: worms, fruits, wild birds and rodents. They have such an important role to play in the ecosystem – you take foxes out of the equation and your rodent population will explode.

Tom certainly felt the benefits of the fox’s natural place in the hierarchy. “The more foxes there are, the fewer rats there are,” he rejoices. “In about six weeks to two months after the foxes are in the garden, they’ll have them all wiped out!”

What is clear, Matt insists, is that foxes are here to stay. Where predators like lynx and wolves have been eradicated by humans, foxes have “not only survived, but thrived”.

As the fight for space in the capital continues, it’s important that we respect the creatures we may see on our doorsteps – even if they pass through the bins.