To me, an encounter with a fox — the UK’s only wild dog — is always something special and compelling. Foxes are one of the things I miss most about living in London, where I could pretty much guarantee an urban fox sighting most weeks. I’ll never forget having to stop the car by Hammersmith Bridge to let a vixen and her 3 cubs cross safely. Since moving to Norfolk, I’ve only seen one wild (rural) fox, and it was a beauty — with a vibrant coat and big fluffy tail. The difference between the urban and countryside fox is quite apparent.
I’m delighted to be handing today’s guest post over to writer Catherine Raven, author of Fox & I. Catherine examines how foxes aren’t scavengers and how, in the UK, wild foxes are becoming scarce…
Foxes are not Scavengers – Guest post by Catherine Raven
Once upon a time, largely rural human cultures valued foxes because they ate crop-ravishing mice. Mechanization condensed the amount of land needed for cultivation; technology provided pesticides to kill mice. Now country foxes, out-of-work and homeless, have emigrated to town, where they are again expected to earn their keep. Some folks suggest that ingesting trash is a suitable occupation for the once honourable red fox.
It’s not. Of course, I live in the country and leave egg yolks outside, expecting only that the foxes sharing my land will entertain me, look sweet, and eat the occasional small mammal.
But placing egg yolks, you protest, is no different than letting them eat rubbish. Oh, but it is for an animal with a highly developed sense of decorum. Offering someone food demonstrates your hospitality. Expecting them to eat trash establishes your impropriety.
What should a fox actually eat?
First, a biology refresher: foxes are not scavengers. Both genetics and physiology enforce that edict. A scavenger is an organism that mostly consumes decaying biomass, such as meat or rotting plant material. Not many mammals fit the description, and none that are native to the UK. Vultures have highly acidic stomachs and are truly scavengers, but again we find the UK, with its shortage of thermals and cattle ranches, coming up short. The task of scavenging London’s rotten foodstuffs falls to spineless creatures, bugs and worms adapted to metabolize the bacteria that thrive in fetid meat.
Like humans, foxes are omnivores. They eat pretty much what we eat. Some of our trash was dangerously unhealthy before it became trash: everything processed, fried and over-salted. Doesn’t anyone in the Mother Country read the BMJ? Some common human foods can kill foxes. Garbage toxicosis is a real disease. So is death by chocolate–theobromine intoxication–if you’re a fox. And Nature didn’t intend for foxes to eat any grains so more than a modicum in their diet can be a serious health threat.
Like humans, foxes are hunter-gatherers. They gather berries and nuts and hunt meat. By hunting, I don’t mean scooping up lethargic dumpster-diving rats. Makes no odds, you say, how they get their rodents, as long as they eat them. But hunting a mouse with a flying leap is an art. Killing a poison-addled mouse is just bad manners.
No one enjoys watching a dingy fox, strings of rancid cheese stuck to its fur, scuttling around rubbish bins and attacking mice. But seeing a red fox jumping, flying, and diving into snow to pounce on a mouse, well, that will leave you breathless. And yet, as more country mice become city mice, England is rapidly approaching a shortage, not of foxes per se, but of wild foxes, the ones we can value for their beauty, agility, and companionship.
Since 2017, the ratio of urban foxes to country foxes has been increasing in the UK. Today, foxes risk evolving into a louder, slightly larger version of the Norway rat.
Foxes, are more like humans than you may have once realized. If you have a little extra food, consider sharing. If you have extra rubbish, hire more sanitation workers. Foxes don’t have the stomach for your rancid pizza. If you wouldn’t feed it to your mother-in-law, don’t feed it to a fox.
About the Author
Catherine Raven is a former national park ranger at Glacier, Mount Ranier, North Cascades, Voyagers, and Yellowstone national parks. She earned a PhD in biology from Montana State University, holds degrees in zoology and botany from the University of Montana, and is a member of American Mensa. Her natural history essays have appeared in American Scientist and Montana Magazine. ‘Fox & I’ (Short Books) is her first book.