I’m feeding someone new at my birdfeeder these days. A handsome fox is stopping by on a regular basis to nibble the bottom of the feeders and eat off the ground below them. He’s in extraordinarily good condition in a resplendent breeding coat.
This fox is a newcomer to this townland. The previous incumbent was a much smaller animal that was not in such good condition. Obviously this is a case of a young fox taking over a territory from a weaker predecessor.
We’re seeing quite a lot of this cheeky young fox these days, as he’s out and about in daylight strutting his stuff. Foxes become more obvious in breeding season but this animal’s behaviour goes beyond that again. He is seemingly very comfortable with humans and shows no fear when approached. So I suspect someone else in the townland is feeding him in addition to my inadvertent provision of bird food. He’s certainly showing the signs of it anyway as he is an extremely healthy, well-fed animal.
No matter how often you see a fox, a glimpse of this beautiful animal brings the thrill of the wild. However, encounters with this once rarely-seen nocturnal mammal are more widespread now than ever.
The numbers of urban foxes are on the rise and these animals are used to living in much closer proximity to humans, which reduces their normal reticence. This brings its own problems as the clever animal has learned how to survive off human waste. The fox is the most widespread carnivore in the world thanks to its ability to adapt to the surrounding environment in this way.
It’s hard to resist the poised beauty of the fox. Its vivid colour, elegant stance and dog-like appearance are all very attractive features. And, when you encounter a ‘brazen’ dog, it is even more engaging as it will interact with humans. It’s easy to tame a fox enough to feed it but it still remains a wild animal that shares its ancestry with the wolf. While domestic dogs have thousands of years of breeding to make them what they are, foxes are essentially feral. Fox attacks on humans, while rare, are increasing as we interact more and more with them. So it’s wise to keep in mind that this is a creature of the wild and treat it accordingly.
The fox is in Ireland for a very long time, at least 5,000 years and possibly much longer. It may even be one of the first post-glacial settlers on this island after the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. It’s been a continuous presence here since pre-historic times so it’s a familiar Irish mammal for millennia.
There is a long history of exploitation of the fox in Ireland. Fox skins were exported from Ireland as far back as the eighteenth century and were used as clothing here long before that. There is also evidence of fox hunting as a sport in early Ireland as it’s described in a story in the Táin. But modern fox hunting with horse and hounds only developed here in the nineteenth century. The income of many poor people was also augmented by trapping and killing foxes in times past.
However, the vast majority of foxes lived quite peacefully in rural settings, living parallel lives to humans with very infrequent interactions. Other than random raids on domestic chicken coops, generally encounters between man and fox were rare.
The urban fox phenomenon is comparatively new in Ireland. There are records of urban foxes in Dublin and Belfast in the 1930s but their numbers really only increased significantly in the 1970s. This was time when the disease myxomatosis was introduced into the rabbit population, causing a massive drop in their numbers. It may have forced the fox to seek alternative food sources in urban settings.
The fox may also have been forced out of the countryside because of a programme of eradication that ran throughout the ‘70s. This was where a bounty was paid for the delivery of a fox-tongue to Garda Stations in some counties in Ireland. This was also a period when up to 35,000 fox skins were exported out of Ireland annually. It was no wonder then that this adaptable animal colonised a new environment where mortality rates are lower. It’s estimated that 60% of urban foxes die each year compared to 80% in rural Ireland.
It’s no surprise that this iconic and familiar creature features strongly in Irish folktales and it does so as a somewhat ambiguous character. It is usually portrayed as cunning and wily but with a likeable side. As ‘cute as a fox’ and ‘crazy like a fox’ are expressions that celebrate its intelligence and many of the folktales are about the fox wilily outwitting its competitors, most especially man.
However, it also features in the stories about the early saints in Ireland and here the fox is often portrayed as friend rather than foe.
There were pisógs associated with the fox too. When setting off in the morning, it was thought to be unlucky to meet a fox or a woman with red hair. Fishermen in the west of Ireland would not go out to sea if they saw a fox first thing in the morning.
Foxes were also used in folk cures. One was a remedy for infertility that involved the woman eating the roasted testicles of a fox (sprinkled with sugar) before her main meal for three days. Fox blood was also applied to the body as a cure for gallstones and kidney stones. And, when all else failed, it was believed a stubborn thorn in the foot could be removed by the use of a fox tongue.
So, whatever about the loss of domestic fowl, historically we humans have done more damage to this beautiful animal that it has done to us. Hopefully we can learn to enjoy our closer proximity to this handsome creature.
And we can do this by bearing in mind that it is a wild animal and treating it accordingly. It is very tempting to feed a ‘friendly fox’ but I’m going to resist the temptation to feed the newcomer in our townland. Our young dog needs to learn to forage for himself and, while the rabbit population is scarce, there is plenty to sustain him in the wild. However, I will continue to admire this beautiful ‘red dog’ from my kitchen window as he scavenges around the bird feeders.