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In The Country

The role of Red Foxes in our environment

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(3/2013) "The Fox went out on a chilly night. He prayed for the moon to give him light for he had many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-oÖ He ran till he came to the farmerís pen the ducks and the geese were kept therein. He said a couple of you are gonna grease my chin before I leave this town-o... He grabbed the great goose by the neck. He threw a duck across his back and he didn't mind the quack, quack and the legs all danglin' down-oÖ Well the old gray woman jumped out of bed. Out of the window she popped her head, cryin' John, John the great goose is gone the Fox is on the town-o..."

Thatís a small excerpt of lyrics from a song called "The Fox" by a popular bluegrass band, Nickel Creek. The song illustrates a contentious history between farmers and foxes, more or less from the foxesí perspective. The fox is an integral part of the ecosystem, and has been for centuries vilified in both literature and sport.

Maryland is lucky to call two species of fox its own, the gray and the red. Both the Gray Fox and the Red Fox are native to Maryland. Similar, yet distinct; each covers a separate niche. The Red Fox is quite resilient and adaptable. This fox is fond of open fields, wetlands, wooded lots, and is increasingly being found thriving in major metropolitan areas. Truly not being too proud to turn its slender nose up at an easy meal there are an estimated 10,000 living in London, as of 2006. The Red Fox does just as well, if not better, in an urban environment via scavenging than itís more rural counterparts. About a year I ago I saw a red fox bounding across the street just outside the Shady Grove Metro station! The Red Fox is truly an omnivore, known to eat small rodents, fruits, grasses, reptiles, birds, invertebrates, and more. This fox is a generalist, and can make do with many types of potential surroundings. However, not all species are so tolerant of urban encroachment.

The Gray Fox was once the most common fox in the eastern United States. It prefers dense forest, and is actually capable of climbing trees! With retractable claws it can scramble up trees to avoid potential predators and obtain food hiding in the forest canopy. This fox is more intolerant of urbanization, and will be located primarily in rural areas. Numbers for this species of fox are beginning to dwindle due to the ever increasing loss of habitat, and displacement from other predators, such as coyotes. The main threat to this species though is man.

Dating back centuries fox hunting has been a popular past time. In the 4th century BCE Alexander the Great is known to have hunted foxes. The Persians thought that hunting fox was part of "a cultured manís education" and encouraged killing them because they were vermin and distracted the dogs from the hares. This notion carried forward through the Romans into the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Eventually, they lost their appeal as strictly parasitic pests and grew into a stately game.

By the end of the 1600ís England had been carved into distinct fox hunting territories with fox hunting clubs growing up around these lands. The cry "view halloo" could often be heard by fox hunters once the fox had been spotted out in the open. The hunting tradition carried on into the new American colonies where American tobacco farmers in Virginia and Maryland promoted the merits of hunting the two species offered here:

The grays furnished more fun, the reds more excitement. The grays did not run so far, but usually kept near home, going in a circuit of six or eight miles. 'An old red,' generally so called irrespective of age, as a tribute to his prowess, might lead the dogs all day, and end by losing them as evening fell, after taking them a dead stretch for thirty miles. The capture of a gray was what men boasted of; a chase after 'an old red' was what they 'yarned' about.

This excerpt from The American Turf Register from around 1830 crystallizes the perspective from the time. Subsequently, the sport was banned in Scotland in 2002, and England and Wales in 2004 for being cruel and unnecessary. The notion of the fox as a noble pursuit soon lost hold as the farm culture dominated the new American economy.

Fox proved to be quite a problem for farmers who raise various forms of livestock, and continue to do so. By and large lambs are the target of livestock predation. In Australia this is a particular problem. There are various methods of controlling such issues, most of which can be handled in a non-lethal manner to the fox. Erecting perimeter fences sealed with mesh or wire netting will generally solve the problem. Poison bating methods are extremely common, but pose significant risks to pets, livestock, potential fox predators, and other wildlife. Baiting and relocation are also extremely effective methods of predator control when dealing with fox issues, but these solutions were not always so common.

To many in the past, and still many in the present, fox are vilified. They are treated as vermin, and as such ought to be exterminated is the thought process. While what a fox may need to do in order to survive can cause economic damage to people extermination should not be the first conclusion jumped to. Fox serve a vital role in the overall ecology and health of an ecosystem. Often times when livestock or property is compromised a predator species is singled out and hunted without much confirmation. The best solution to prevent predatory animals is to secure any valuables that may be lost by predation prior to anything else. When you take any members of an intricate web out of the equation things get unbalanced. Itís uncertain what the future may hold for the Gray and Red Fox, but through appropriate land management techniques and human interaction they can continue to remain a sly, yet beautiful presence among our fields and even our cities!

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson