Pete Dommett takes a look at our special relationship with this city dweller
As a young boy in the late ’70s, I remember watching a Wildlife on One special about Bristol’s foxes. The programme included an amusing montage of various russet-coated characters lying on lawns, rolling about in flower beds and snoozing on shed roofs, accompanied (I think) by Hoagy Carmichael’s Lazybones. To me, living further south in rural Somerset where I’d never seen so much as a single fox, Bristol appeared to be some sort of vulpine utopia.
And it was. Sightings of foxes in the city increased sharply at the end of the Second World War and were common by the early ’60s. As in other built-up areas of Britain, Bristol’s foxes showed a distinct liking for semi-detached suburbia. These neighbourhoods, mainly in the north-west corner of the city, had everything foxes needed: good-sized gardens with plenty of places to sleep during the day, raise a family and find food. Bristol’s foxes had never had it so good and, as a result, their numbers grew. By the beginning of the ’90s, it was reckoned that the city had the highest density of foxes found anywhere in the world.
Then, in 1994, things dramatically, and drastically, changed. It’s estimated that over 95% of Bristol’s foxes died following an outbreak of mange. Almost overnight, they’d become rare animals and now, more than 20 years on, the population is still in a state of recovery. High mortality rates and short life expectancy make it hard for foxes to bounce back: it’s likely that only half the number of cubs born in the city each spring make it to their first birthday, and those that do, rarely live for more than another year. Cars are the biggest killers by far.
But life is good for those foxes that do survive. Finding enough food has never been a problem: as opportunistic omnivores, they’ll eat anything. Urban foxes readily hunt wild birds, mice and voles, and forage for worms, insects and, in the autumn, fallen fruit.
The biggest item on a Bristol fox’s nightly menu, however, is scavenged food. Contrary to popular belief, this is not rifled from bins, but mostly put out on purpose (usually in the form of meat, bones and bread) by well-meaning people. In fact, a survey by the University of Bristol found that, in the parts of the city where foxes live, around one in 10 households feed them. And as long as you don’t hand-feed or over-feed them, says the Mammal Research Unit, there’s no harm in that. Many Bristolians get hours of pleasure from inviting ‘their’ foxes to dinner.
We can all enjoy them, though. If you’re lucky enough to live in the leafier parts of Bristol (in places like Sneyd Park, Sea Mills, Westbury-on Trym, Stoke Bishop, Coombe Dingle and Henleaze) you might well see them going about their business on a daily – or nightly – basis. At this time of year, youngsters are leaving their family groups to find territories for themselves and adults are looking their best with long, new winter coats and lustrous, bushy brushes.
Sadly, I still don’t live in a particularly foxy area, but I know a good spot in Clifton where I can pull up in the car, put on some music and watch them quietly. And it’s even better than on the box.
• For more information on foxes, visit thefoxwebsite.net – maintained by The University of Bristol’s Mammal Research Unit