Field biologists are a little like hunters -- they spend inordinate amounts of time crouched in the weeds, or jungled up in thickets, plagued by gnats and mosquitoes, pounded by the sun, burned by the wind and wet to the bone. And all because of some critter.
David MacDonald is a hunter at heart, albeit a hunter equipped with a Yagi directional-antenna in one hand, and a pair of infra-red binoculars in the other. After more than 25 years of tracking red foxes through farm, fell, forest, suburb, desert and inner city, he is also the preeminent fox biologist in the world.
Running With the Fox is his masterpiece.
MacDonald writes as someone who has spent decades studying foxes -- indeed, one wonders if he ever sleeps, as he seems to be out most nights searching for any of a dozen or more animals he has radio-collared.
MacDonald is a population biologist and his goal is to understand the dynamics of fox life, from food and mating to migration and mortality. Over the course of almost 30 years of study, he has raised many fox litters from whelps and has seen many of those same animals crushed by cars, snared by keepers, shot by farmers, accidentally butchered by combines, or perish from disease or abuse inflicted by other fox or feral dogs.
In the wild, few things ever die of old age or in their sleep.
Despite all, the fox not only persists but thrives.
How is that possible?
The simple answer is that fox are very secretive and very adaptable. Not only can they thrive on a hundred different food sources, but what foods they eat are rarely missed by man.
Combine that with a nocturnal lifestyle, a natural (and well deserved!) fear of humans and dogs, and an almost supernatural sense of hearing, smell and sight, and it turns out that fox are rarely seen, whether they are cruising the edges of farms, suburban yards, or small woods.
Sprinkled throughout Running With the Fox are amazing tidbits of information gleaned from examining scores of thousands of fox scats and observing vulpines in every kind of habitat, from Iceland to Israel, and from downtown Oxford to the woods of Canada's national parks. A few summary points:
- Foxes eat a lot of earthworms. To hear some folks talk, you would think a fox was the size of a wolf and largely dined on sheep and chickens. In fact, the average fox is just 12 to 14 pounds and lives on a diet composed mostly of mice, voles, insects, fruit, young rabbits, diseased birds, and scavenged food ranging from fried chicken found at parks to roadkill gleaned from medians, to bird seed spilled from garden bird feeders. Earthworms, it turns out, comprise 20 to 35 percent of fox diet in many pasture-rich areas where worms come up in high densities on moist nights with little wind. Previous studies of fox diet have missed earthworms as a key component because observers did not have night-visions goggles and did not do microscopic analysis of fox scat to find the thousands of tiny chatae which are the scale-like growths worms use to move through the soil. Hunting foxes has increased their global numbers. As paradoxical as it sounds, no human action has been as beneficial to the red fox as the mounted hunt. The reason for this is simple: fox hunting has bestowed on fox an economic and cultural value, and mounted hunts are so terribly inefficient that they do not do much to suppress fox populations. Not only did the mounted hunts import red fox to North America and Australia -- where they have thrived in spectacular numbers -- but they also led the charge to ban efficient traps and poisons in the UK. Indeed, the highly pejorative term "vulpicide" specifically means the killing of fox by means other than with hounds and terriers. As mounted hunts gained in popularity, fox coverts were planted and maintained on UK farms and estates, artificial breeding earths were constructed, and fox were live-trapped and moved into areas where they had been depleted. The result is that across the UK -- and across the world -- there are now far more red fox running about than there were just 150 years ago.
- Foxhunting is not the most cruel way to die. MacDonald notes that most kinds of "natural" death are cruel, and that immortality is not an option for the fox. Is "natural" starvation, disease or predation more cruel, or less cruel, than an "unnatural" death by hunting, which is likely to be swift and sure? MacDonald notes that "If hunting stopped, the same number of foxes, or even more, would be killed by people using other methods such as traps, poison, snares or night-shooting," as most fox that are purposely terminated in the UK are on bird-shoot estates where the fox is in direct competition with the "excess" birds released into the wild. As MacDonald notes, hunters are willing to pay £10 a bird -- fox are not.
- Foxes do almost no damage to sheep populations. After spending countless hours observing fox in sheep country, often at night and through infra-red goggles, MacDonald concludes that fox are not very fond of mutton and that they do very little predation on live lambs. Given almost any kind of alternative food source -- rabbits, bird seed, worms, baby birds, fruit or roadkill -- a fox will give sheep a pass. When fox do eat sheep, they tend to focus on already-dead detritus -- sheep testicles that drop off into the field after castrating bands are applied (MacDonald notes that he often finds fox feces containing these same undigested rubber bands), after birth, and even sheep dung from young lambs -- the latter loaded with still-undigested milk products. MacDonald does not deny that fox may kill a few very young (and perhaps already fatally weak) sheep, but such attacks are so rare they have never been filmed and are statistically negligible. MacDonald notes that in the fell and upland regions, where fear of fox predation is highest, sheep mortality is often 25% with many lambs born starving due to over-grazing abetted by a government policy that subsidizes overly-dense sheep production. With ewes in poor feed, and lambs borne wet on cold and windy slopes without shelter, lamb mortality is very high without any fox participation at all. The fact that fox, on occasion, scavenge the already-dead does little harm to the living.
- Fox control has very little impact on total fox population numbers. Fox hunting with hounds and terriers is not very efficient, and MacDonald believes it does no real harm to overall fox populations. While some very heavily 'keepered shooting estates may be able to knock down fox populations over a small area, so many young fox migrate outward to find new ground every year that, absent constant trapping, shooting and digging (which is done on some shooting estates) the population balance is quickly restored. In the UK, fox hunting of all kinds removes about 1 fox per 6.7 square kilometers a year -- enough to encourage more breeding, but too low a number to actually reduce the fox population. Notes MacDonald, "foxhunting is of minor significance to foxes in particular, or amongst wildlife issues generally." In short, almost any other environmental issue or impact is more important to fox welfare than foxhunting.
- Fox hunting may benefit the environment. MacDonald notes that with the rise of mounted hunts, more fox coverts were planted and farmers began to be paid to not poison or trap them. The result has been an increase in the number of fox in the UK over the course of the last 150 years. In a survey of 800 farmers, MacDonald also discovered that those who were enthusiastic foxhunters had removed 35% less hedgerows than the average farmer during the 1970s -- apparently because of their desire to produce good fox habitat.
- There is very little moral distinction between fox hunting and eating fish or owning a cat. MacDonald does not recoil at the idea of fox hunting, and finds it morally indistinguishable from such common activities as eating fish or owning a cat. He notes that "people's gastronomic enjoyment outweighs their concern for the consequences of harvesting billions of fish annually, as their enjoyment of their cat's companionship outweighs regret at the deaths of millions of hedgerow birds annually."
- While fox predation on farm stock may do very little economic harm, hunting of foxes may present some economic benefits. While fox do very little damage to sheep, they do cut in to the number of "surplus" birds on lands where they are stocked for hunting. MacDonald is impressed by the economics of the shoots. He notes that "the game shooting industry is probably largely responsible for the frequently unpleasant deaths of 100,000 fox annually in Britain, but against these must be weighed the fact that this industry provides the major incentive for habitat conservation on farmland. In Britain, in 1982, it was estimated to generate more than £200 million worth of consumer expenditure and a game 'bag' valued at £17 million. There is an argument that game shooting is the greatest hope for conservation on modern farms, but that predators of game are the sacrifice required to secure the land." Against the economics of bird hunting, MacDonald weighs the economics of mounted fox hunting (which seek to protect fox in order to chase them), a pastime which, in the UK, is enjoyed by over 200,000 people and which results in over 2,600 full-time jobs, and many more thousands of part-time or associated jobs, ranging from farriers to vets. In actuality, it appears both bird-shoots and mounted fox hunts preserve land, and that the large estates can be managed for fox or birds without having much impact on overall fox or bird numbers -- a win/win for the environment, and therefore a win for fox and birds as well.