The great British fox fact file

Foxes are one of the most admired creatures in Britain and are commonly spotted late at night. We take a look at their fine characteristics and lives.

Fantastic foxes

Two illustrated foxes grooming

Foxes are resourceful and thrive in many places. Mostly at night, but also by day they scavenge from carcasses or kill small mammals, especially rabbits and field voles. In summer they catch many beetles, and in autumn feed on fruit. Foxes in coastal areas forage for crabs and dead fish or sea birds.

Alert and wary, foxes have acute hearing and a keen sense of smell, and eyes that are quick to spot movement.

From October to January a fox has a full thick coat, while for most of the summer it moults. 

Although foxes are mostly seen alone, they live in family groups usually made up of a dog fox (male), a breeding vixen (female) and her cubs, and perhaps one or two non-breeding vixens from old litters. An earth or den, perhaps in a rock crevice or under tree roots, is used at breeding time. The vixen may dig and earth or enlarge an abandoned burrow. At other times, foxes shelter above ground. Few live more than eight years.

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Behaviour facts:

Although foxes from the same group forage alone, they may meet during the night for play or mutual grooming.

About May, foxes begin to moult their winter coats and scratch to remove loose fur. The moult spreads slowly along the back and hind quarters.

Prey such as voles may be detected by sound. The fox leaps on the spot the sound came from, pinning the prey with its forepaws.

 

 

Rearing fox cubs

The anatomy of a fox

Foxes breed once a year. The mating season lasts from Christmas until about February, when courting foxes may be heard emitting short triple barks, or shattering the silence of the night with unearthly screams as a vixen calls to a potential mate.

The dog and vixen hunt and travel together for about three weeks, towards the end of which they may mate several times. The vixen is pregnant for about 53 days, with the peak period for births around mid-March.

A litter of cubs is born on the bare soil of the den or earth; the vixen makes no nest. The cubs open their eyes at 10–14 days, and take their first solid food—often regurgitated by their mother—at three to four weeks. A week later they emerge from the den, and their dark brown cub coats start to change colour.

By about eight weeks the coat is red-brown. Non-breeding vixens may help rear the cubs. The cubs stay together as a family throughout summer, reaching adult size about September. Young vixens may  stay with the family group, but young dog foxes leave in autumn or winter to find their own territories.

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Fox cubs growing up

Cub facts:

During the mating season the dog fox, tail held straight out, will follow the vixen for long periods. They may be seen during the daytime.

Cubs grow rapidly. At four or five weeks their blues eyes slowly change to amber and their coats begin to go reddish brown.

The vixen stays in the den or earth with her cubs until they are two weeks old, the dog fox bringing her food. After that she spends more time outside.

A litter of four or five round-faced, short-eared cubs is born in March or April. They are born blind and are covered with fur of a deep chocolate brown.

If disturbed, the vixen moves the cubs to another earth. Cubs up to six weeks old are carried in her mouth, one at a time, each held by the scruff of the neck.

As the cubs grow up, they fight and squabble. Sparring cubs stand on their hind legs and push each other.

At the end of the year, some of the cubs leave to find their own territories. An adult will sometimes drive a young fox away from the group.

 

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Foxing about the town

Foxes in a town garden

There are foxes in most towns and cities from the south up to Nottingham. They are commonest in suburbs, especially those built in the 1930s.

In northern England and Wales urban foxes are much scarcer. There are some in Scotland—in Edinburgh and Glasgow—and also in Ireland—In Belfast and some cities of the Republic.

Town foxes usually rest by day, perhaps under a garden shed or in a sunny spot on a roof. At night they forage over a small area, mostly for scraps, windfalls or worms, but occasionally taking a pet rabbit or guinea pig. A vixen chooses her breeding den in late winter, often under a shed of a pile of rubbish, or she may dig an earth. Cubs may play outside from late April or early May, and some will readily take food from the hand. 

From late June the cubs nest above ground during the hot weather, behind a bush or similar spot, and the den is gradually abandoned.

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Garden fox facts:

1. A fox may rob a bird table of crusts or bacon rind if it is easy to climb or leap on. Worms often surface on a lawn on a warm, damp night, providing a feast for a foraging fox.

2. The cavity under a garden shed provides a den for a litter of fox cubs. Foxes and cats rarely bother each other. If there is a confrontation the fox is quite likely to back down first.

3. A suburban back garden after dark may be a hunting ground for one or two foxes or their permanent home. They prefer a garden that is not too tidy, with plenty of shrubs or clutter for shelter.

4. Foxes are scavengers and do raid dustbins—but not as often as is generally believed.