Bugles sounded up and down the country yesterday as the hunting season officially opened in a blaze of blood-red jackets and galloping steeds. Once the harbinger of death to the fox population, this is now the third season under Britain's controversial hunting ban.
But three years on, the fox may not be as safe as supporters of the ban had hoped after new figures show the average fox lives for just two years, almost a decade shorter than its natural life span in the wild.
Before the ban, hunts killed as many as 25,000 foxes each year, a number which John Bryant, a wildlife expert who specialises in the humane removal of foxes from urban areas, believes has remained largely unchanged in the past three years.
He said: "A fox is lucky to get passed its first birthday and even luckier to pass its second. It is a combination of factors, chiefly motor vehicles. They are also being shot by farmers, caught in snares and still hunted, despite the ban. I think it's had virtually no effect. They are constantly being persecuted for no good reason."
Motorists are still the biggest killers of foxes, with about 100,000 animals dying under the wheels of cars and trucks each year, according to Professor Stephen Harris, from Bristol University, the country's leading expert on foxes. His studies showed that more than 75 per cent of foxes were dead by their second year, with just 1.5 per cent living to their sixth. In captivity they have been known to live for up to 16 years.
He said: "Only around one in every thousand makes it to a decade. In the past 50 years there has undoubtedly been an increase in the amount killed on our roads with the rise of the motor vehicle although the population, as far as we know, is now stable."
He estimates there are around 250,000 adult foxes in Britain. His study shows foxes are aware of the danger cars pose.
He said: "They tend to avoid really busy roads and only attempt crossings after midnight and before 6am, they're very savvy, but nonetheless they can't outrun a fast car."
He also rejected the idea that foxes had moved into urban areas to feed on food dumped in rubbish bags. He said: "It is simply not true that foxes have moved into towns tempted by easy pickings. It was actually the suburban spreads from the 1930s onwards which encroached on the foxes. They haven't moved in on us, we have moved in on them."
About 14 per cent of foxes live in urban areas surviving on worms and discarded food, making their "earths" mainly under garden sheds.