Wildlife: Basil's unhappy brush with the town

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Are urban foxes being dumped in the country? asks Duff Hart-Davis

Foxes are beautiful creatures and great survivors, but there is also an element of mystery about them. No doubt this is mainly because they rarely show themselves during the day; a faintly sinister reputation also leads to stories such as those about how they appear sitting in graveyards when celebrated hunting men are about to die.

Country folk take a keen interest in foxes at all times, and eagerly report sightings to each other. So when an animal's behaviour seems out of character, word flashes round.

The latest strange story comes from John and Janet Thomas, who live at Monstay Farm, near Ludlow. One evening at about 7pm, a friend called to see their son Edward, who runs the farm. The visitor came in leaving the back door open.

Hard on his heels, a fox shot into the house and ran up the stairs. When Edward went after it, he was amazed to see it sitting on the landing, cool as any house cat; but when he chased it into his parents' bedroom it took fright and raced round on top of the furniture, scattering ornaments and piddling on furniture and walls.

In the end Edward managed to smother the animal under a coat, hit it between the eyes with a hammer and carry it outside into the barn, where he left it, supposing it to be dead. His father, returning from work elsewhere, found the house "in pandemonium", with bedding and pillows being thrown out for burning. Then, in the morning, great was Edward's surprise when he discovered that his victim had got up and gone.

To the Thomas family, it seemed obvious that this was an urban fox, possibly a pet, which somebody had dumped out in the country. They assumed it had come to the dustbins by the back door in search of food, reasoning that no normal fox would ever have run into the lighted doorway. Still less would a wild animal have sat at the top of the stairs and watched a human being approaching.

Their theory is backed up by another farmer, who regularly shoots more than 100 foxes a year in one valley, and has dispatched 14 in the past month alone. The animals have all been in good condition, but they are half-tame, and bigger and redder than local foxes, which tend to have rather grey coats.

This farmer is convinced that foxes are being caught in some nearby town - possibly Birmingham, only 30 miles away - and turned out of vans at night to fend for themselves. Many other people share his conviction that this dumping is going on; the number of foxes in circulation seems outrageous, and many show signs of disorientation, hanging about in the open in broad daylight.

Yet experts deny that this is happening. Professor Stephen Harris, who has made an intensive study of foxes in Bristol, dismisses the idea as nonsense. He agrees that there was a time, in the Seventies, when some London councils used to release captured animals into the countryside; but he says that the practice has long ceased.

He should know, because until recently Bristol had the densest fox population of any city in Britain. In its heyday, four or five years ago, Professor Harris estimated that there were 700 mature foxes in the city, plus about 900 cubs born each year. Some 20 per cent of these animals were marked with ear-tags, and no single ear-tag has ever been returned from outside the city.

Further, the professor points out that "mythical van-loads of foxes" would be exceedingly hard to assemble. "How would you collect so many at once?" he asks. "How would you feed them? How would you get them all into the van?"

His scepticism is seconded by John Haines, a freelance pest-control expert who has worked in Bristol for seven years. He has caught hundreds of foxes in cage-traps, but always puts them down humanely with a silenced .22, and is "totally against" the idea of releasing them into the countryside. Translocating wild animals is not illegal, but he reckons it would cause a fox a high level of stress and suffering - and in any case, a strange animal set down in the territory of other foxes would probably be hounded out, and starve.

If dumping does occur, it is the act of soft-hearted but hypocritical householders, who wish to be rid of an animal that has taken up residence under their garden shed, but do not want to be responsible for its death. Whatever fate befalls a captured urban fox, its removal is not cheap: the cost of trapping and taking it away is at least pounds 150.

Now, however, Bristol has practically no foxes at all, for in the past two years virulent mange has swept up from the Somerset Levels and killed 97 per cent of the city's vulpine population. The disease is moving on up-country. Here, 25 miles to the north, we have at least one mangy fox that is causing concern, as the disease can be transmitted to dogs and cats by mites on bushes or fence-wire.

Normal, healthy foxes, as I say, are part and parcel of country life; but animals that are sick, or behaving strangely, arouse no mean disquiet.