They are as big as Alsatians and getting bigger. Their numbers are increasing and are out of control. They foul our gardens, they rip cats apart, they are getting bolder. It is simply a matter of time before they kill a baby. City-dwellers cannot let toddlers play in the garden for fear they will be mauled or killed. It's incredible how much hysteria the British press can generate about such a small, and largely inoffensive, animal as the fox.
In the war on the urban fox, truth is not so much a casualty as irrelevant. The fox "cub" recently pictured sitting on a child's bed in London was actually an adult in the terminal stages of mange. It had crept into the house to try to keep warm (foxes with mange lose most of their fur): it caused no problem and was removed by the RSPCA. A non-story and an everyday occurrence with stray cats. Similarly, the fox in the wardrobe. Having entered a house, it panicked and did exactly what foxes do when scared: it looked for somewhere dark to hide. Again it posed no threat and hardly warranted newspaper coverage.
In March the press hailed a fox shot on a Scottish farm as the biggest ever killed in Britain, claiming that such large foxes were unthinkable a few years ago. Yet foxhunts were killing foxes much the same size a hundred years ago. Every urban fox story quotes an "expert", most of whom have little or no expertise on urban foxes. Here an expert was quoted as suggesting that foxes are getting bigger because they are better fed in urban areas. All the more remarkable that the fox killed in rural Aberdeenshire was about as far away from urban influences as is possible in mainland Britain, and none of the recent reports of big foxes have been from cities. Extremes occur in all species, even humans. Since the biggest man in the world was five times taller than the shortest, why are we surprised to see a fox twice as big as normal? With the anticipated climate changes in Britain, foxes are likely to get smaller, not bigger, something not reported in the "giant fox" stories.
The first claim that foxes will kill a baby appeared in the Sunday Times in 1973: 40 years on, this still has not happened. While twins attacked in Hackney in 2010 sustained nasty injuries, much about this incident puzzles me. Their injuries were unlike anything I have ever seen from foxes. Yet despite being such an atypical event, it is repeatedly referred to in the press. In comparison, the seven children and five adults killed by dogs since 2005, and the hundreds more disfigured, receive far less coverage.
Nor are urban fox numbers increasing, despite claims made by yet another "expert" on the recent Channel 4 programme. 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%. The same expert also claimed that Channel 4 had undertaken "the biggest fox survey ever"; previous surveys have involved vastly more people. Nor is there any basis for Channel 4 to claim there are now 40,000 urban foxes in Britain: this figure will undoubtedly dominate the press even though the only scientifically based estimate is 33,000.
With all this misinformation, it is hard to believe that we know more about British urban foxes than foxes anywhere else in the world. We even know more about urban foxes than most other British mammals: just about every aspect of their lives has been studied in minute detail. The underlying problem is that anything to do with foxes has been politically charged since the upsurge of the hunting debate in the mid-1990s. Until then press stories about foxes were largely balanced. However, influencing public opinion on the need to kill foxes has been a key goal of the hunting lobby. Yet despite the subsequent 15 years of press hype, the vast majority of British people still like foxes, particularly urban foxes. The anti-fox campaign hasn't worked, and it's time to return to more factual, and balanced, reporting.