The problem with Reynard

Fox numbers are on the increase. If hunting is banned, they may have to be killed some other way. By Duff Hart-Davis
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As the 191 packs of foxhounds in England, Scotland and Wales once again hit top gear, people all over the country are wondering what would happen to foxes if hunting with hounds were banned. There is widespread disagreement. Some experts believe that if hunts did not kill 20,000 foxes a year, the population would rocket. Others maintain that hunting actively promotes conservation of the species, and that, if their traditional protection were removed, fox populations would be reduced.

Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University, who has studied the foxes in the city for years, believes that although hard culling by gamekeepers certainly reduces local populations, the overall effect of persecution by man - be it with hound, gun, snare, trap or poison - is insignificant. "The more you kill, the faster they breed," he says, and he reckons that the determining factor is the availability of food. At the moment, with rabbits abundant, and large numbers of pheasants being bred for shooting every year, foxes are doing well. Ironically enough, they are at their nadir in Bristol itself, where virulent mange, spreading up from Somerset, has killed a high percentage of the urban population.

In a review of British mammals published this year, Professor Harris and fellow scientists estimated the present fox population of England, Scotland and Wales at 240,000 adults in winter, with about 425,000 cubs being born each spring. The paper suggested that numbers have fluctuated over the past 40 years. In the 1950s and early 1960s, for instance, they went down, partly because myxomatosis (introduced in 1953) wiped out most of the rabbits, and partly because many foxes died after eating woodpigeons poisoned by the insecticide dieldrin.

The central message of the review was that human predation seems to have little effect overall, in the face of the fox's immense productivity. During the 1970s the price paid by furriers for a single skin rose to pounds 25, with the result that gamekeepers extended their culling to 100,000 animals a year. Nevertheless, the population as a whole did not fall, and today it still seems to be on the increase.

In an attempt to discover more about what is happening, the Game Conservancy Trust has launched a major three-year study, funded by the British Field Sports Society. In the words of Dr Stephen Tapper, the Conservancy's Director of Research, "We just don't know the impact of man on foxes, and because so many of the arguments about culling are based on emotion we thought it would be good to find out what's actually happening."

Two scientists, Dr Matthew Heydon and Dr Jonathan Reynolds, are now studying population density and control methods in three sample areas, one in the Midlands, one in East Anglia and one in Wales. In spring they count earths in which vixens have cubs; in autumn and winter they imitate their quarry by becoming creatures of the dark, driving a 50-mile route every night and counting the eyes which show up distinctively bright yellow- red in their spotlight. They have also sent out questionnaires to farmers and gamekeepers, and they are collecting dead foxes for examination (scars in a vixen's uterus can reveal how many cubs she bore the previous spring).

The results of their investigation will be detailed and complex - not least because the three study areas were chosen for their diversity. In the Midlands, where the hunting tradition is strong, aficionados claim that it helps maintain a balanced fox population. In East Anglia there are relatively few foxes - probably because it is prime shooting country, and intensively keepered. In Wales, on the other hand, the hill hunts reckon they have a vital role in keeping down a predator which, given a free run, would play havoc among the sheep.

This view is emphatically backed by John Pugh, a hill farmer in Radnorshire, for 25 years Huntsman of the Llanwrthwl Farmers' hunt, and now Chairman of the Welsh Farmers' Fox Control Association. Hunting in his wild hills is a far cry from the pomp and finery of meets in the Home Counties. Hounds are used, for sure, but humans go out on foot, and everyone is armed with 12-bore shotguns. In the 1993-94 season the hunt killed 150 foxes. In 1994-95 the tally was 165, and in January this year 14 days alone accounted for 50.

The result of this was that the hunt received no emergency call-outs from farmers during the past two lambing seasons; but Mr Pugh has little doubt that a ban on hunting with hounds would be "total disaster". Without hounds, it is impossible to shift foxes out of the large forestry plantations that harbour them, and if farmers were deprived of their main means of control, they would resort to desperate measures such as illegal poisoning.

Elsewhere, an end to hunting would lead inevitably to an increase in other forms of culling - snaring, cage-trapping and shooting. This last, when done at night with spotlamp and high-velocity rifle, is undoubtedly the most humane and efficient method, but it is not selective: any fox seen is liable to be shot, whereas one of the claims for hunting with hounds has always been that it singles out the old and the weak.

There is no argument about the damage foxes can do. Any poultry keeper who has had an entire flock bitten to death, and found the bodies left lying on the ground, knows all too well that foxes often kill not just to eat, but for the excitement of the murder. Nor are foxes a threat only to lambs, piglets, chickens, pheasants and partridges: they are a menace to all ground-nesting birds - as witness the disaster that overtook the sandwich terns nesting on Scolt Head Island, a nature reserve off the North Norfolk coast. Until the winter of 1987/88, the island had been free of ground predators in recent times. Then foxes crossed the tidal flats at low water, and, in spite of valiant efforts by English Nature to exterminate them, massacred the entire annual production of the tern colony. In normal nesting seasons the birds had been producing about 2,700 flying young, but in 1989, 1990 and 1991, not a single juvenile tern took to the air.

Fox power is formidable. Nobody doubts that. But at the moment we understand it poorly. The Game Conservancy survey will certainly increase our knowledge, and one hopes that, until the report becomes available, no politician will be irresponsible enough to propose legislation whose effects would be, to say the least, unpredictable.