Fearful Fantasies over Mr Fox
So-called urban foxes are not the frightening menace they’re made out to be – but neither are they fantastic
An unsuspecting visitor to these fair isles this weekend could be forgiven for thinking that Britain, particularly its metropolitan areas, was under siege. But the threat wasn’t coming from some al-Qaeda tribute act, nor even from some hooded yoofs with a fondness for Footlocker. No, the threat had taken a decidedly furry turn. I’m talking, of course, of that most frightening of creatures, the urban fox.
And the reason for the heightened state of emergency? Last week, a fox had entered a house in south-east London, wandered into a bedroom, and bitten a one-month-old baby. According to the BBC, ‘it was believed one of the baby’s fingers was severed but later re-attached by surgeons in a “delicate and difficult” three-hour operation, although this has not been confirmed by the hospital’. This would of course be pretty harrowing for the babies’ parents. But for the rest of us that should have been it. A rare occurrence, yes, but about as significant as a variation of ‘dog bites man’.
But the story didn’t end with a write-up in the local press, and a picture of a baby with a bandaged hand. That was merely the start. By the weekend, London mayor Boris Johnson saw fit to make a public statement. ‘This must serve as a wake-up call to London’s borough leaders’, he said, channelling Churchill. ‘They must come together, study the data, try to understand why this is becoming such a problem and act quickly to sort it out.’ Johnson’s cri de coeur quickly won support from the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, a body which represents, among others, pest control professionals. Its director Graham Jukes said the issue had been ‘creeping up on us for a number of years now’, but bemoaned a lack of available resources. As well he would.
But do urban foxes – which, despite their gritty prefix, are no tougher than their country cousins – really represent a ‘creeping’ metropolitan menace? Well, no, not really. As Stephen Harris, a professor of biology at the University of Bristol, makes clear, the urban fox population is no higher now than it was in the 1960s. Based on the most reliable recent estimate, this figure stands at around 33,000. In fact, writes Harris, ‘In many cities fox numbers have declined due to sarcoptic mange, an extremely unpleasant and fatal disease. In Bristol, the fox population is still recovering from the 1994 mange outbreak, which killed more than 95 per cent.’
As for the threat to humans, it is virtually non-existent. There was the case, in June 2010, of the ‘mauling’ of baby twins Lola and Isabella Koupparis allegedly by a fox. But there’s a reason why that incident became a universal reference point for the fox panic – because it was the only case of any significance. Indeed, since The Sunday Times first claimed that a fox will kill a baby back in 1973, no baby has been killed by a fox – urban, rural or, indeed, suburban.
Yet, while it is necessary to cut through this dingo-fied nonsense about crafty, cruel foxes attacking babies, it is just as necessary not to elevate foxes above humans, as many of the pro-animal misanthropes are wont to do. Because, let’s face it, foxes can be a right royal pain in the backside: they rip up rubbish bags, they copulate with ear-piercing screeches, and they defecate on the street. Foxes are not frightening, but neither are they fantastic. So, no, London borough councils shouldn’t treat foxes as a threat to our young ones; but neither should we have any qualms about getting rid of a few if it makes our lives just that little bit more pleasant.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.