Deer, not fox, is biggest threat to countryside

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The Independent Online
FOXES ARE far from being the voracious predators that they are made out to be and probably do less damage to native wildlife than red deer, according to a scientific study.

Zoologists found that foxes have little impact on populations of wild birds, yet overgrazing by red deer in Scotland has scarred the landscape and made it far more difficult for other wild animals to survive.

Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at Bristol University and one of the country's experts on foxes, said that just eight out of 60 studies into the predation of ground-nesting wading birds have shown that the fox has an impact on bird numbers - and even then it was low.

"We hear a great deal about foxes being serious predators in the countryside. I was surprised by how low the impact of foxes was on many types of birds," Professor Harris told the conference yesterday.

"The study we did on lapwings", he said, showed that "foxes were one of the least important predators to them. Crows were much more important." As for pheasants: "They are not adapted to the wild so it is not surprising that they are vulnerable."

Rabbits form between 70 and 80 per cent of a fox's diet, with voles, worms and insects making up most of the rest.

Red deer in Scotland, on the other hand, have had a devastating impact on local wildlife, said Martyn Lee Gorman, senior lecturer in zoology at the University of Aberdeen. "Red deer are now a damn nuisance. There are far too many of them, and there are far too many because there are no natural predators," he said.

"There is a very serious problem. You can go to many parts of Scotland and into what should be native pine woods, and you can't see a tree under 200 years old. They eat the young trees as soon as they appear."

Dr Gorman said that one solution would be to reintroduce wolves into the Highlands. "We can hardly expect other countries to keep dangerous animals such as the tiger when we are unable or unwilling to suffer much smaller problems, as would be associated with wolves in the Highlands."

Professor Harris said that the kind of destruction caused by the red deer makes life far more difficult for other wild animals. "Once the deer are damaging the habitat and opening it up, the birds that are there are much more vulnerable to being found by predators such as the fox and other predators like eagles," he explained.

There are currently an estimated 250,000 adult foxes, producing about 400,000 cubs a year, most of which die in their first year of life. Humans kill about 400,000 foxes a year, and a ban on fox-hunting, which kills 20,000 a year at most, would have little impact on fox control, Professor Harris said.