The Fox – Ireland’s Last Wild Dog
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes), also known as madra rua or sionnach, is possibly the most distinctive native Irish mammal, with its orange fur, bushy white-tipped tail, and dog-like appearance.
They are usually around 36 – 42 inches long (their tail making up around 14 – 16 inches of this!) and are generally around 5 – 7kg in weight (though very big foxes can be up to 14kg). Below is a map of the distribution of the red fox in Ireland from the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Perhaps the map is completely unnecessary – the red fox is found basically everywhere throughout the country! Their habitats are similarly widespread, with foxes being found in woodland, grasslands, mountains, and our towns and cities.
The red fox’s success in spreading throughout Ireland is thanks partially to its diet – it is an omnivore, meaning it eats a wide variety of food including both plants and animals. Red foxes prey on small mammals like rabbits, mice and voles, birds and their eggs, and also invertebrates like worms and insects. In addition, they will eat grain, carrion (dead animals), and fruit where they can get it. In urban settings, foxes have no issues with eating whatever they can find in rubbish bins, as well as food left out for pets (or that especially left out for them by generous humans).
After mating in winter, a female (vixen) gives birth to pups after around two months of gestation. Litters usually contain around 5 pups, but can range from 2 to 12. The pups are born in a den, which is often a burrow abandoned by another animal, and expanded by foxes. Red foxes are actually not born with their signature red fur – pups are born with grey or brown fur. Both parents help to look after the pups in the den for about five weeks, after which the pups are big enough to leave. Throughout the summer, parents stay with the pups, teaching them how to survive until autumn when the pups disperse to make their own way in the world.
In urban settings, red foxes have adapted very well to the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. Their diets tend to be around 50% meat (lending a hand in rodent control in the process) and the 50% household refuse – in contrast, the diet of the rural fox is 95% meat and the remainder made up of fruit, worms and insects. They make their dens in gardens, parks and even railway embankments. Foxes can live up to 9 years, but generally do not live past 3. The most common cause of death is road accidents, which are especially common in Autumn when young foxes are dispersing away from their dens. In rural settings, particularly on farms, foxes face human aggression when livestock are perceived to be threatened, as well as when they are hunted for sport or for trophies. In addition, foxes can contract sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites, which makes the fox look very rough around the edges. While not fatal itself, sarcoptic mange causes lesions on the skin that make secondary infections much more likely.
Sadly, many myths about foxes’ impacts on livestock abound, and this has very likely contributed to unjust persecution of the species. Foxes do not kill “for sport” – this accusation has been levelled at the species due to incidents where foxes have gotten into poultry coops, killed many birds, and left apparently only with one carcass. The truth is, when foxes come across such an abundance of prey, they will instinctively kill as many as they can, with the aim of caching all kills for later feeding – if disturbed while moving back and forth from the coop to the den, the fox will flee, abandoning the dead poultry, and leaving an undeserved reputation as a cold-blooded killer behind it! It is the responsibility of livestock and pet owners to protect their animals properly – foxes are intelligent, athletic, able to squeeze through small spaces, so animals need to be securely contained. On arable farmlands, foxes are a benefit to the farmer, keeping rodent populations low through predation.
Fun fox facts!:
- The fox’s resourcefulness and intelligence has gained it a place in the folklore of many cultures, where it is seen as a trickster, outwitting opponents of greater strength.
- Research has shown divergence in the body shapes of rural and urban foxes – urban foxes are becoming more and more similar to domesticated dogs!
- In London’s Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre, there are some footprints imprinted in the concrete from where a curious fox wandered the building site before the concrete dried.
- Also in London, a fox was found living on the 72nd floor of the Shard building in 2011, having survived on food scraps left by construction workers!
- The word for a group of foxes is a skulk.
- The word “shenanigans”, meaning mischief or trickery, may come from the Irish “sionnachuighim”, meaning “I play the fox” or “I play tricks”.
Written by Tom Murphy