Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000
Key Identification Features
The red fox is Ireland’s only member of the Canidae family. They are easily recognizable by their small doglike appearance. Coloration consists of a reddish to brown tint with a long bushy tail often with a white tip. The underbelly consists of a white to grey texture, black markings are present on the ears, feet and whiskered muzzle. The coat is moulted in spring with a second phase of hair growth occurring in the autumn to produce a heavier winter coat. There are variations in colour with some individuals having darker or sliver tinted coats. The body is long and sleek with a pointed head and muzzle with sharp pointed upright ears. Males are known as dogs and are only slightly larger and heavier than the female vixens. Adult males can grow to 1.5m from nose to tip with the tail accounting for up to half this total length.
Males weigh on average 7kg with females being only slightly shorter and weighing 6kg when fully grown. Fox tracks leave a four-toed impression of the front foot although each fore foot has five digits. The hind feet have four digits which all transfer to print indentations. Fox tracks are similar to those of dogs but have a more oval shape, they generally measure 5cm in length while being up to 4cm wide. The red fox species is highly vocal using a range of sounds to communicate, these vary from high pitched murmuring whines emitted by cubs to the distinctive triple bark used by adults, the vixen often uses a high pitched scream during the breeding season. Foxes usually move with a trot like stride or canter and can sprint for long distances with their tails held straight out behind when pursued. They are able swimmers and can even climb trees. Visual signals are complex as they use a range of body postures and facial expressions to communicate. Scent information is also important for determining other individuals age, breeding condition and territory, this is done by regularly depositing faeces, urine an scent gland secretions at various landmarks in a territory and upon regularly used pathways. Scent glands on their feet leave trails which can be followed at night. Foxes have excellent hearing which is utilized while hunting and to communicate with others. Eyesight is good in low light levels but relatively poor in daylight and over long distances.
Foxes are highly adaptive mammals that can inhabit any type of land area, they are traditionally associated with woodland and open countryside but can be found from lowlands up to mountainous areas, along the coast, in farmland and more recently in urban areas. No one habitat type is preferred as they will hunt and scavenge most food sources in an area providing disturbance of their den is not excessive. Foxes use two types of nest sites. The underground den known as an earth is either dug out by the fox or more usually it will expand an old rabbit warren or badger sett. No bedding is used inside the earth and each will have several entrances. Protected recesses in rock crevices, under water drains and even under buildings will be used if available. Several earths will be used in an individual fox’s territory for shelter from bad weather and to rear a litter of cubs. Lie up areas above ground within vegetation or among other cover will be more frequently used during the day. The size of a fox’s territory depends on the type and quality of the habitat in which it is located. Larger territories of up to 1,000ha will generally be found in upland regions where food sources are further apart. Small territorial ranges of 20 to 40ha will be found within urban areas where the opportunity to scavenge regular food sources increases. Foxes in open farmland landscapes will have a range of 200 to 600ha and can be considered the average range of a fox in Ireland. Each territory will be traversed using a series of well-worn scent marked pathways.
Food and Feeding Habits
Red foxes are non-specialized carnivores eating a diverse range of food types depending on the season and location of their habitat. They are largely solitary nocturnal hunters spending most of the day hidden in sheltered lie up nests, they will be emerge at dusk and remain active for most of the night. They are highly opportunistic feeders who use a variety of hunting techniques. Species which they have a preference for include rabbits, young hares, rats, mice, hedgehogs, pigeons and ground nesting birds, when such prey items become scarce they will supplement their diet by foraging for earthworms, beetles, crickets and insect larvae. Apples and blackberries are also eaten on occasion. Adult foxes must consume 500 grams of food daily to maintain their body weight. When food is in abundance it is stored in cache sites throughout their territories to be eaten at a later date. The fox’s scavenging habits has contributed to its successful spread throughout Ireland. In rural areas they will eat carrion of dead sheep and deer which they find, they also have a preference for lamb after-birth in spring. In urban areas they will investigate any rubbish heaps and dust bins they can gain access to.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
In Ireland the red fox mating season starts in January and ends by the middle of March. Foxes are largely monogamous and can live in small groups comprising of one adult male, one dominant vixen and several younger non breeding females. During the mating season foxes become more vocal with courtship rituals involving body postures, scent spraying and fighting among males common. A male fox will closely follow a female weeks before mating occurs, this is perhaps due to a small three day window in which the female is fertile. Copulation occurs below ground in the earth. Once pregnant the gestation period lasts for on average fifty days.
Cubs are usually born in March and April with litter sizes averaging four or five cubs. Cubs weigh only 100 grams and are deaf and blind when born. As they develop they will grow darker chocolate brown coats and have shorter muzzles than adults. At this time their eyes will have a blue colouration. The mother will remain with the cubs in the earth for several weeks to provide body heat and gives milk for six weeks. During this time the male will bring food to the den which is regurgitated, they can eat solid food by the age of one month. Cubs grow 50 grams a day and will begin to emerge from the earth by their second month. If in a family group the non-breeding females will assist in grooming and tending to the cubs the male will also display parental care until at least June. Mortality rates for newborn fox cubs can be as high as 80%. By autumn the young foxes will leave to establish new territories although in alot of cases young females will remain for another season to help rear the next group of cubs. Male foxes can become sexually mature after only one year and may have to travel long distances in order to establish their own territories. The typical lifespan of foxes in the wild in Ireland is generally 4 to 6 years.
The red fox is believed to have originated in Eurasia 5 million years ago spreading to most parts of western Europe 400,000 years ago. They are thought to have originated as a specialist rodent hunter and are now the most widespread carnivore in the world. They currently occupy areas including Europe, North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina and have been recently introduce to Australia. They are absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa. They most likely arrived in Ireland during the postglacial period and can be found in every county with the exception of offshore islands. Population denisties vary according to the habitat type they are found in with up to 20 individuals per km2 in good quality suburban and mixed farmland areas to as low as 2 per 40 km2 in poorer upland regions. Due largely to their high adaptability, non-specialization in prey type and high reproductive rate they have managed to successfully colonize an increasing number of new habitats in Ireland.
Red foxes are not considered endangered in Ireland or in the rest of Europe. They benefit cultivated areas as they reduce the numbers of crop damaging rabbit and rodent species. They have long since been considered as pests as they prey on some local populations of domesticated poultry and on ground nesting game birds during the nesting season. They will indulge in surplus killing if they gain access to pheasant or chicken enclosures so adequate fencing of such areas is required. They are considered a threat during the lambing season although it is more likely foxes will scavenge dead sheep and lambs instead of actively hunting them. The fur trade in the past accounted for large numbers of fox deaths as their pelts were highly sought with shooting and trapping used as recently as the 1970’s and 1980’s. 35,000 fox pelts were exported from Ireland each year during this period. Organized hunting by horses and hounds still occurs in some areas. Foxes can carry the rabies virus which they can catch from infected rodents. Large scale gassing and shooting reduced fox numbers in Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s before the development of an oral vaccination which is left in bait. Ireland is currently rabies free. Foxes are susceptible to pesticide accumulation in the environment which travels up the food chain and is mainly as a result of fox’s habit of eating carrion, especially some bird species. Foxes are also prone to sarcoptic mange which causes fur loss and skin lesions due to scratching at the embedded mites. The red foxes’ spread to urban areas is not a threat to domestic cats and dogs and is generally welcomed by people who leave food scraps for local foxes in their back gardens. Irish red foxes are only afforded the most basic legal protection under the Wildlife Act.