Friday, January 06, 2017

Surprising Changes in U.K. Fox Demographics

The folks at New Scientist report that "there are five times more urban foxes in England than we thought." At the same time, it appears there has been a tremendous decline in rural fox following the ban on hunting with dogs.

The number of red foxes in urban areas of England appears to have soared almost fivefold.

The rise from an estimated 33,000 in the 1990s to 150,000 today seems to have happened largely because foxes have appeared in new areas, or multiplied in low-density towns, particularly in the north of the country. In southern cities, numbers seem to be static.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, overall sightings in England have plummeted by 43 per cent over the past 20 years.

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are flourishing in urban areas across the globe. They were first reported in towns in southern England in the 1930s.

... Top of the list is Bournemouth, at 23 foxes per km2. London registered 18 per km2. In Brighton, the population is 16 per km2.

Further north, Newcastle is now home to about 10 foxes per km2.

“The densities in the north have actually increased. The densities in the south have not,” Scott told the meeting. “It doesn’t look like London is overrun by foxes.”

Extrapolating from these figures, the team estimates that there are nearly 150,000 urban foxes in England – about one for every 300 urban residents.

... The urban trend contrasts with the British Trust for Ornithology's overall fox figures for England, both urban and rural, which show a 43 per cent decline between 1995 and 2015, including a sharp drop since 2010.

“I’d say that the most likely causes were declines in prey or increases in shooting pressure,” says Stephens.

Rabbit numbers have fallen over this period, possibly because of disease, and changing farming practices are also likely to have reduced potential prey in rural areas. "Earthworms make up a large proportion of the fox’s diet, especially for their young, in many areas and are known to be strongly adversely affected by pesticides,” says Stephens.

There is also anecdotal evidence that “since the hunting with dogs ban came into force, gamekeepers have felt a particular obligation to hammer foxes as hard as they can”, he says.


SecondThoughtsOptional said...

That's unsurprising. I did follow the fox-hunting ban debate with half an ear and one of the dumbest arguments used was that fox-hunting controlled fox populations. It doesn't take a room temperature IQ to realise that the way to efficiently control fox populations isn't to chase after them with a pack of hounds. It doesn't take a much brighter IQ to realise that the UK food supply isn't much affected by foxes -- what chicken doesn't come from abroad is factory-farmed and as to fruit and vegetables, that's a joke. To be sure, there were also better arguments that it provided economic benefits to people associated with fox-hunting, was a cultural tradition and was just plain fun, all of which are true. But you can't mix bad and good arguments and expect a good outcome.

The general public is not anti fox-killing. It's anti fox-hunting. Conflating these two has just led to an unholy mess. Personally I find it a little pathetic: truthfully, the fox is our wolf and that's a good part of the reason that this poor cat-sized predator been freighted with so much cultural baggage.

Nor is the general public pro chicken shooting (I'm sorry, there's just no other way to describe raising 'wildfowl' by the thousand to overstock as nominally wild and then shoot), but the shooting estates have much more political power. You don't see the RSPCA campaigning against estates! I really don't like that the normal notion of a hunter is the slob who knows little about wildlife or ecosystems, but just pays to play.

Long may you keep public lands, wildlife management that isn't in the hands of private landowners, and public access to land. It's the most vital fight.

Dan said...

That the rural fox population has dropped is no surprise to anyone in Britain with the slightest connection to the countryside. When the ban on hunting with hounds was brought into law, the police firearms licensing departments saw such an increase in applications for firearms certificates, and variations on existing certificates that they were backlogged for 18 months in most cases.

Virtually all of the applications were for small-calibre vermin-shooting rifles, usually 17 HMRs but a smattering of 22 rimfires, 223 centre fires and so on. All of these weapons would be intended for fox control.

Over the last decade, electronic sighting equipment has also improved. Night sights used to be ex-Russian Gen-1 kit, or ex-Army Gen-1 cascade tubes. These days infra red-sensitive digital scopes are the entry level kit, with thermal sights available for under a thousand pounds.

Basically, if the farmers want rural foxes dead and can shoot straight, then these foxes have pretty much no chance at all.

Coupled along with this has been an inexorable rise in the rural badger population. Eurasian badgers eat a lot of the same things that foxes do, and are quite capable of seeing off pretty much anything else in the British countryside. A booming badger population is why bumblebees are getting very rare, hedgehogs are locally extinct in many places, and why zoonotic tuberculosis is rife in much of southern England.

Badgers are extremely well protected by law, and really ought not to be anywhere near so heavily protected.