|Far more fox are killed by cars than by mounted hunts.|
A reader of this blog writes:
Once again I have a question that I hope you might be so kind to answer.
In my research on traditional fox hunting I'm running into conflicting accounts regarding the 'breeding' of foxes specifically for hunting. Based on my readings, it is my understanding that there is a long-standing practice in England of creating artificial dens or “earths” in which foxes are encouraged to breed (even fed). In fact the Duke of Beaufort in his book Hunting talks about compensating farmers for possible losses incurred due to this ‘breeding’ of foxes for sport.
The first justification for lifting the ban on fox hunting in England and Scotland seems to be that foxes are “vermin” that cause farmers to incur losses — which would not make encouraging foxes to multiply seem very prudent.
How common is/was this practice of building artificial dens (and does it compare to rabbit warrens)? What was/is the ultimate purpose of this practice?
Any thoughts would be much appreciated.
My answer follows...
Let me see if I can sort it out, and make it simple:
1. The mounted hunts are not about fox extermination.
If you are trying to get rid of fox, you do it with poison and leghold traps. Poison and traps work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The mounted hunts are about fox HUNTING, not fox killing.
2. Nothing has been better for fox than the mounted hunts.
During the late Victorian era, fox were nearly wiped out in the U.K. due to the use of traps and poison by small land owners. It was the mounted hunts, beginning in the 1820s, that protected fox by frowning on the social crime of "vulpicide" with poison, trap, gun, and snare. To this day, the mounted hunts protect fox by protecting coverts and hedges, by opposing traps and poisons, and by sometimes compensating farmers and land owners if foxes in their hunt area take chickens, ducks, or lamb.
3. Artificial dens are not common, are rarely used as natal dens, and have no discernable impact on fox numbers.
The population of fox in the U.K. rises and falls from around 425,000 a year (mid-April) to 250,000 or so (January 1st). Almost all fox mortality is due to disease (mange, distemper), starvation, den flooding, and vehicle impact. Mounted hunts (even before "the ban" in 2005), terrier work, shooting, and snaring might, in total, account for 50,000 fox a year, but no more and probably less. Rudyard Kipling noted that, back in his day, the true killer of fox was not the mounted hunts, but vehicles. That is even more true today.
4. Rabbit warrens and badger settes are fairly common all over rural England... and that can be a problem.
Badgers are now more common in the U.K. than the red fox, and rabbits dens are found all over. Most fox dens are old rabbit warrens that have been opened up by a vixen, or else they are old (and sometimes still used) badger settes. Bottom line: there's no shortage of places for a fox to whelp in. >> For more information
5. The purpose of artificial dens is to have a known place that is not a badger sette, where a fox can easily be bolted from, and towards which a running fox might head.
Fox hunting is both a sport and a business. Imagine you have 200 people on horses, who have driven and trailered in from all over a 100-mile radius. They have subscribed to a hunt because they want a day out in the field riding their horses to the excitement of a pack of bellowing hounds. To achieve that mission, you clearly need a fox to keep everyone happy. And, for the record, you don't just need a fox today (Monday), but also on Wednesday, and Friday as well. What to do? Simple: You set up five or six nice, long, dry artificial dens on your hunt land. These are warm dry places in which a loafing fox might lay up, and they are easy places to put in a small yapping dog to bolt a fox for the field if that is really required. Just as importantly, they are places which a fox can run TO for safety. And so, having failed to turn up a fox in the first two or three hours of a hunt, the huntsman might head to an artificial earth in the hope of being able to bolt a fox from it. If a fox bolts from artificial earth #1, its heading is noted. If the fox heads off to the south, there is a decent chance it is heading off to artificial earth #2, a mile or two away. This earth lies along known land, and neither fox, nor hounds, nor horses will be crossing a major road where a vehicle impact might occur. Almost as important, the fox will be heading away from school yards, churches and small land holdings where a pack of hounds and a field of horses would be disruptive and chaotic. Perfect! Of course, neither fox nor hounds may be reading the manual! With more badger about than fox, and with rabbits all over, and drains quite common in some areas, a fox may rise from anywhere and bolt to safety in any direction. Chaos (and perhaps hilarity) may ensue. However it goes, the fox has a very good chance of getting away.
6. Artificial earths are sometimes used to shelter orphaned cubs.
When a vixen is killed by a car, poison, snare, gun, her cubs will starve. Ditto if she dies of mange or distemper, or is killed by a hound on top of the ground. In such situations, the cubs may be found and relocated to an artificial earth where food may be provided to them for a short period of time while they mature to hunt mice and moles on their own. These cubs are not being "raised" by the hunt -- they are orphan cubs being given a chance to grow up and perhaps have a life. Remember, the goal of the hunts is not to exterminate fox, but to chase them. A live fox can be chased every day for a year, but a dead one is the end of the game. It's called "fox hunting," not fox killing for a reason!
7. Artificial earths in Germany seem to be a unique situation.
In Germany, artificial earths are being built in some locations in order to provide sport for gun-hunters that are too lazy to tramp up and down farm country. So far as I can tell, this is not being done in the U.K., the U.S., or anywhere else, and I have written with some contempt about the practice (see here and here). What's going on in Germany? Hard to know, but I suspect the use of over-large German Jagdterriers is the driving force behind the use of artificial earths unconnected to hounds and mounted hunts.
8. Fox are a serious predator problem only in a narrow set of circumstances.
We have real predators here in the US -- coyotes, bobcats, bears (two kinds), mountain lions, wolves, alligators -- and so we have no reason to create drama around a red fox, a 15-pound meso-predator that mostly lives on mice, rats, worms, road-kill, and garbage. A fox cannot kill a horse, a cow, or a dog bigger than a Chihuahua. A fox will generally ignore a cat, but might take a kitten. It will eat dead sheep, and sheep afterbirth, as well as sheep testicles cut off and discarded, but it will almost never kill a new-born lamb. If you want to reduce sheep mortality, you would start by providing shelter to ewes and their newborns during inclement weather, not with killing off all the fox you could find. Fox predation on sheep is about 1%, while weather-related deaths are 15-25%. Where fox are a real problem is with free-range chickens and ducks, and with stocked bird-shoots. Fox can decimate a pond full of pet ducks, can wipe out a small flock of backyard chickens, and can make a bird shoot enterprise unprofitable. Remedies here vary from localized fox extermination over a few thousand acres (commercial bird shoots), to more secure nighttime penning of birds (with a hot wire and welded mesh) for chickens, to the creation of islands (floating or otherwise) for ducks and geese to nest on. To read more about fox diet (and the minimal impact of mounted hunts on fox populations), read this book and book review.
9. The most humane, and least efficient, method of fox control is hounds combined with terrier work.
It is humane, because unlike traps, snares and and poison, there is rarely an accidental take (cats, badger, small dogs), and unlike shooting over bait, a gut-shot fox never runs away to die of sepsis. In addition, both adult fox and cubs can be relocated if desired or required. The lack of efficiency is a bonus because it means that while fox numbers can be sharply reduced over select bird-shoot lands, the extirpation of fox over a wider area is impossible. In short, mounted hunts and terrier work result in narrow-based, farm-specific fox management without wide-spread extermination.
10. Nothing is more cruel than nature unchecked.
The alternative to hunting is not life everlasting. The way animals die in nature is simple: vehicle impact, disease, starvation, and being torn apart by other animals. A fox being caught by foxhounds above ground (a pretty rare occurrence) is not more cruel than a fox being caught above-ground by a wolf, a coyote, or a bobcat, or a fox being struck by a car. Sadly, folks in the U.K. miss the larger picture here because they are missing a full and balanced compendium of wild animals at the top of the natural pyramid. The British, Irish, and Scots once had the wolf to control fox. Now, however, they only have the wolf's distant cousin, the fox hound. The latter is not less humane because it comes with a pedigree and collar! It is certainly less cruel than mange, distemper, sepsis from a gut-shot wound, or an animal lying broken and starving under a hedge after a vehicle impact.