How the fox is losing its fear of life on the streets

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Wildlife experts expressed amazement yesterday at an apparent attack by a fox on a baby in a pram in a city suburb.

Phillip Sheppard, aged five months, was bitten on the face and needed hospital treatment. His mother, Elena Sheppard, 36, had found the animal on top of him in the conservatory of her home in Norbury, south London, after hearing his cries.

Wildlife experts said yesterday that foxes had become bolder about entering houses in recent years. Many people encouraged them to come in to be fed, some even letting the animals eat from their hands. They doubted that the boy had been attacked, however.

Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at Bristol University, said: "It would be extremely unlikely for a fox to jump into a pram and attack a baby. What is more plausible is that the fox may have jumped on to the pram and inadvertently scratched the baby. A fox simply would not attack with its claws."

Frank Wheeler, head of small mammals at London Zoo, and Dr David Macdonald, head of Oxford University's wildlife conservation research unit, said they were astounded at the reported incident.

Mr Wheeler said: "For a fox to attack a child in a house is something I've never heard of. They're naturally one of the shyest animals. They are not dangerous. They have a very weak bite. But there's a definite trend for them to lose their fear of people because they're not being hunted."

He said other countryside animals, such as rabbits, were also appearing in towns.

Dr David Macdonald, of Oxford University, said the incident was "astounding". Foxes normally ran away rather than come into contact with people.

The availability of food determined where foxes lived. The "home range" of a fox in the suburbs with its resources including dustbins and takeaways might be about 100 acres whereas a fox in upland England might roam more than 2,500 acres. "A lot of people get enormous pleasure from putting food out and watching foxes," he added.

Trevor Williams, the director of wildlife information service the Fox Project, said: "The injuries described are totally inconsistent with a fox-bite. If you are bitten on the face by a fox, your whole face will blow up and go black and blue.

"Foxes' claws are broad and blunt for digging, not sharp like a cat's. From what I hear of the injuries, I am not sure they were caused by a fox. They sound much more like a cat's scratch to me."