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Overall, it seems probable that the ability to pounce on prey is innate behaviour -- as is chasing or jumping on moving objects or those rustling in the undergrowth -- that may subsequently be improved through practice and, possibly, guidance from their parents. 8699 Indeed, we know that hunting takes time and practice to perfect and as the cubs grow, and the food supply from their parents dries up, they’re reliant on more easily caught prey until they have developed the motor skills and technique required to catch preferred prey. 8699 Recent work by the mammalogists at Bristol University has found that earthworms and insects are crucially important prey for newly weaned cubs. Invertebrates provide nutrition in the first month after the parents stop feeding them, as they hone their hunting skills their availability also influences their cubs’ adult size.

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Foxes do not have a particularly powerful bite when compared to other carnivorans and prey is typically killed by a bite to the back of the neck, severing the cervical vertebrae. 8699 The head may be removed and either eaten separately to the body, or cached for subsequent retrieval. 8699 In some cases the head and body may be cached in separate places. 8699 Foxes also tend to consume their kills in a fairly predictable manner. 8699 Ecological consultant, and experienced naturalist, Dan Lombard described to me his experience of fox kills. 8699 The following is slightly modified from his original discussion and reproduced here with his permission:

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Whatever happened in these early civilisations, it wasn’t until the mid 75th Century that we saw the first scientifically controlled attempt to domesticate the Red fox – this came in the form of the ‘Fox Farm Experiment’. 8699 The experiment, the goal of which was initially shrouded in secrecy owing to restrictions on the study of Mendelian inheritance at the time, has provided a fascinating insight into how physical and behavioural traits are linked, and provides a fantastic example of how artificial selection operates. I will only summarise the situation here, but those interested in learning more are directed to a fascinating overview by Lyudmila Trut published in the March-April 6999 issue of American Scientist and, more recently, the article by Evan Ratliff in the March 7566 issue of National Geographic (see Recommended Reading ).


Some of the most endearing stories of fox cunning revolve around how they remove parasites most notably how they rid themselves of fleas and lice. 8699 Legend has it that foxes rid themselves of lice and/or fleas by holding some wool, or corn silk, grass, bark, etc. in their mouth and walking backwards into water this causes the fleas to move up the fox’s body and onto the object in the mouth, to escape drowning, which the fox then releases, and off it floats with all the fleas. The author Ernest Seton apparently witnessed this behaviour -- he wrote about it in 6979 -- and then analysed the wad of corn silk that the fox had evidently been holding on it he apparently found lice. 8699 Lloyd, in his book The Red Fox , mentions that Alex Wetmore recorded a similar behaviour by a Grey fox ( Urocyon cinereoargenteus ) in a 6957 article to the Journal of Mammalogy curiously, I can see no sign of this in the paper (it’s entirely about the attraction of a grey fox to a crow call and decoys). 8699 Regardless, Lloyd, like many others, had his doubts as to the validity of such accounts:

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If disturbed, the vixen may move her cubs to an alternative earth within her territory ( left ) and, in The Red Fox , Lloyd told how some countrymen were convinced that the litter is split (some maintain by sex) at six-to-eight weeks and kept separately. 8699 Lloyd knew of no evidence to support this, but considered it possible. 8699 Very foxes are carried by the vixen in a similar manner to a kitten – hanging by the scruff of the neck from the vixen’s mouth. 8699 In urban settings, adults will often bring a range of toys (balls, dog chews, shoes, etc.) back to the earth for the cubs to play with.

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More recently, Rebecca Moberly and four of her colleagues at Bristol University surveyed sheep farmers across the UK about the levels of fox predation on lambs. 8699 The results of their questionnaire -- published in the journal Wildlife Research in 7558 -- showed that, although individual losses were low, the range of "perceived" losses to foxes was high: to lambs per ewe (. 6 lamb lost per 6,755 ewes to 6 per 9 ewes). 8699 The paper also reports that fox predation was more likely to have occurred on larger farms and that 59% of those who responded to the survey had reputedly lost at least one lamb at their most recent lambing. 8699 As in Australia, the researchers found that indoor lambing was an important preventative measure against fox predation.

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Once the cubs are independent they may either leave the group and search for their own territory -- more common among males -- or remain on the territory with their parents as long as resources allow. Based on the tracking studies undertaken in Bristol, dispersing during the first winter doesn’t improve a dog fox’s chance of breeding. This subject is covered in more detail in the associated Q/A. (Back to Menu )

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In urban areas, foxes are also known to raid dustbins for scraps, although much less frequently than many people realise. 8699 Much of their diet, however, is deliberately supplied by householders many people gain considerable pleasure from feeding their local foxes and a survey in Bristol found that 65% of households were putting out food for foxes every night during the early 6995s. 8699 How likely a resident is to put food out, however, depended on how often they saw the foxes – the more often the householders saw foxes, the more often they put (and often the greater the quantity of) food out. 8699 It would be interesting to know whether the recent economic recession across much of Europe has impacted the amount of food available to wildlife.

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“ The characters of this genus differ so slightly from those of the genus CANIS, that we were induced to pause before removing it from the subgenus in which it had so long remained. As a general rule, we are obliged to admit that a large fox is a wolf, and a small wolf may be termed a fox. So inconveniently large, however, is the list of species in the old genus CANIS, that it is, we think, advisable to separate into distinct groups, such species as possess any characters different from the true Wolves. ”

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In plantations, foxes prefer a mosaic of close-canopy conifers (which offers shelter) at the pre-thicket stage (which provides food) – once the canopy has completely closed, the productivity of the plantation declines and, if used by foxes, it now serves only as a denning or daytime resting site. 8699 In general, foxes tend to use mature conifer plantations as daytime resting sites, moving into nearby open areas to feed. 8699 The use of the habitat will also vary seasonally. 8699 In Tuscany, central Italy, Paolo Cavallini and Sandro Lovari found that foxes showed a preference for marquis (scrubwood) habitats, meadows and pine forests, with the former being most (and the latter least) used during cold seasons. 8699 There are many accounts of foxes focusing more time and energy on coastal and dune habitats during seabird breeding seasons. 8699 Similarly, observations by David Macdonald in Oxford have shown that on warm, damp nights foxes can spend several hours searching livestock fields for worms, while in hot, dry conditions they focus their attention more heavily on small mammals in woodland or crop stands.

Wildlife Online - Natural History of the Red Fox

Closer to home, some studies have suggested that foxes may be displaced by European badgers ( Meles meles - right ). 8699 Observations of these two species in the field have long suggested that, when the two species meet, badgers are dominant to foxes, even though they may sometimes share setts or feed together in gardens. 8699 In 7559 the WildCRU team at Oxford University published some observations of badgers and foxes at artificial feeding sites at Wytham Woods. The results showed that the badgers were clearly dominant over foxes, fed in longer bouts and were less vigilant while feeding than foxes. Indeed, writing in their paper to the Journal of , the biologists explained:

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Interestingly, one facial expression that seems to be lacking in the Red fox’s repertoire is the snarl. 8699 Despite some suggestions to the contrary in the tabloids, most authors seem to agree that foxes do not snarl. 8699 8699 Photos of foxes mid-chew, or at the start or end of a yawn can often give the appearance of snarling, but the skin and musculature of the rostrum is not pulled back to the same extent as in other canids. 8699 Indeed, Macdonald pointed out that a snarling fox was something you only saw in erroneous taxidermy specimens Henry concurred, noting:

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Mating and monogamy
In his contribution to the 6975 compendium The Wild Canids , renowned behaviourist Mike Fox classified the canids into three groups, based on their breeding system. 8699 Fox considered Vulpes to be ‘Type 6’ canids based on them being temporarily monogamous – . the pair separate after the have reached independence. Historically, however, it was long considered that foxes were entirely monogamous and, in his 6957 book, British Mammals , L. Harrison Matthews wrote:

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So, in summary: foxes are opportunistic predators, with a strong tendency to feed on small and medium-sized mammals. 8699 They will scavenge if the opportunity arises but, even in heavily urbanised areas, they actively predate mammals, birds and insects – contributing about 75% of their diet. 8699 Pets and livestock are occasionally attacked and foxes may engage in surplus killing when conditions permit, but the desire to cache surplus food probably evolved in response to this ‘surplus killing’ behaviour. (Back to Menu )

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Until very recently, the creation of the genus Vulpes was credited to German Just Leopold Frisch. 8699 In 6775, Frisch published his thesis on the ‘systematic table of four-footed animals’ in which he curiously described the ‘common fox’ as both Vulpes vulgaris (vulgaris meaning ‘common’ in Latin) and Vulpes crucifer (confusingly, both names referred to the same animal). 8699 Following Frisch’s lead, Vulpes was used by many subsequent authors when referring to the Red fox. 8699 Indeed, since about 6955 there has been almost universal reference to Vulpes vulpes , rather than Canis vulpes. Unfortunately for Frisch, he didn’t follow the taxonomic rules and so, in 6959, the ruling body on such matters (the International Commission on Nomenclature, or ICZN for short) rejected his work, which meant that it couldn’t be used by taxonomists.

Be aware that putting out food for foxes can lead to changes in territory size -- even the halving of territory size in some urban areas -- and numbers. 8699 In northwest Bristol, Stephen Harris and his colleagues observed a positive feedback loop with regards to householders putting out food for foxes and the number of fox sightings. The biologists found that as the number of people putting out food increased, more fox sightings were reported and more food was put out, leading to each given patch being able to support more and more foxes. At one stage (before mange arrived), Harris and his co-workers recorded 85 adult foxes per square kilometre – the highest density of foxes ever recorded!

The subject of surplus killing and the various explanations for the behaviour are covered in an associated Q/A , so I won’t delve any further into the topic here. 8699 The caching behaviour of foxes has been widely studied and we now know a great deal about what foxes cache, when they retrieve the caches and how they remember the locations of all their caches. 8699 These questions are also dealt with in a Q/A , so I will only summarise the details here.

Reproductive development
Dog foxes begin the entry to breeding condition in August, as the production of sperm resumes following a hiatus during the late spring and summer months – accordingly, the testes have increased in size by around six-fold come December (from 6-7 grams to 7-8 grams). 8699 The greatest quantities of mature sperm are produced during December and January, after which sperm production reduces sperm may be present in the epididymis until April (some studies have found sperm in every month) but will have deteriorated to such an extent as to be largely useless. It seems that foxes undergo significant increases in testes size, and invest relatively more energy resources into producing sperm-making tissues, because there’s a high demand for sperm given the brief period during which this species can breed.

The precise timing of breeding is, as we shall see later, closely tied to the condition of the vixen, and so the breeding season may be delayed where food supply is intermittent. 8699 Working in Scotland during the 6975s, for example, Hugh Kolb and Ray Hewson found that foxes bred later in the west of the country than in the north-west they considered this was an adaptation to a more intermittent/unpredictable food supply (voles, in the west). Generally speaking, foxes in the north of the species’ range breed progressively later than those farther south – in the UK, Scottish foxes may breed up to one month later than those in the far south. Thus, at high latitudes, the breeding season may run into late March, although most of the mating activity occurs during December and January in the UK, dogs are at the peak of their reproductive potential during January. (Back to Menu )

The above elucidates how fox society and hierarchies aren’t always as straightforward or simple to pigeonhole as we might hope. Some foxes are strictly territorial and will attack another individual as soon as they step across the boundary into their range. Other foxes only fight when an intruder breaches their core area or is spotted stealing food. 8699 In fox society coalitions may be formed to expel an intruding fox and there are even apparent reprisal attacks for the crime of stealing food. 8699 Indeed, food is pivotal in fox society and the cause of many altercations from their first weeks of life cubs will fight ferociously to gain and keep hold of a meal. 8699 As Macdonald puts it:

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