In pursuit of London's Public Enemy No. 1

Andy McSmith finds a neighbourhood in shock following this week's fox attack

Hackney, in east London, has some of the worst poverty in Britain, but parts of it – particularly the area around Victoria Park – are attractive, prosperous and safe. There, people can leave their back doors open, free from fear. Until a week ago, that is, when two baby girls suffered a rare and unexplained attack by a fox.

Now, everyone locally has an opinion about the burgeoning fox population living in wild Hackney's undergrowth. In rural Britain, they have lived alongside foxes since time immemorial, not necessarily in harmony.

Farmers who have had to cope with the threat to their poultry from scavenging foxes will no doubt share the sentiments of John Pugh, chairman of the Welsh Farmers Fox Control Association, who described the Hackney attack as a "wake-up call" that should alert the authorities to the menace of urban foxes, which can only get bigger, as foxes have no natural enemies.

Around Hackney, they used to be a popular addition to the local fauna. Now, the parents of young children are not so sure they want them around any more. "When I was younger, you got really excited when you saw a fox. But now they're everywhere," said Shana Canning, the mother of two young children. "I don't think we would be so scared if we hadn't heard the story of what happened just round the corner, but living in a maisonette, we are going to think twice about keeping the windows open.

"My daughter, who's eight, likes to play at the front. I wonder if she's safe. Lots of the children have been stopped from going out because of the foxes."

Her sister, the similarly named Shara Canning, is equally alarmed. Since the attack happened, she has had to chase off a fox that tipped over their bin to get out a discarded nappy: "He was as bold as brass, coming at us to attack rather than run away, which is what we thought he would do."

Franca Barr, who also has two small children, said: "Funnily enough, last week a fox tried to get into our house. It was the first time. I wouldn't have said the foxes are trouble, but I wish there were fewer of them."

The attractive three-storey Victorian house where nine-month-old twins Lola and Isabella Koupparis were attacked was easy to spot last week, because of the camera crews, photographers and journalists keeping a vigil outside. There was less activity inside, apart from the occasional visit by an RSPCA inspector.

Lola, who was bitten on the face, is recovering well in the Royal London Hospital. Isabella, who had the more serious bite, on the arm, has had surgery at Great Ormond Street hospital. The fox entered the house on a sweltering evening when the patio doors had been left open. The parents were watching television with an older child. The babies were asleep upstairs.

While some people want the foxes purged from the area, others defend them. Steve Bachelor, who works for the League against Cruel Sports, used to live just round the corner. "The noise was incredible," he said. "It was a combination of their cries and the neighbours who had sonic devices that were used to scare them off, which had a high-pitched screech.

"We once found a fox in the house that had come in through the door flap. It just turned round and bolted. They have just got used to humans, and have lost their fear of us. I was instinctively wary of foxes, but never more than that. This attack is a terrible, awful story, but the fact that it has had so much coverage is because it's so rare."

He argues that the solution is to cut off the foxes' food supply by wasting less, and not leaving household waste where the foxes can get at it.

He added: "Culling the foxes would be a short-term solution that would only have an effect for one year. By our actions we have invited them to live among us, and by our actions we should work out a proper solution for dealing with the problems it causes."

Sheila Priest, whose daughter and granddaughter live in a housing association flat at the end of the same road, said that her family fed the foxes. "My granddaughter goes out and feeds them and their cubs. They have never harmed her. The cats go in the garden, and the foxes are there and there is no trouble."

She suggested, though, that other members of Hackney's four-legged communities ought to feel the sharp prick of the vet's tranquilliser dart: "The only animals round here that want culling are the pit bulls. They're the real danger. Every once in a blue moon a fox does something wrong and people go mad."