Of the 37 species of mammal known worldwide as foxes only 12 actually belong to the true fox family of vulpes which includes wolves, jackals and some wild dogs.
And by far the most widespread and common species is the red fox, which inhabits large areas of Europe, including the UK, and is a cunning and controversial creature.
Unlike its cousins the wolves and jackals, the red fox is not a pack animal, preferring to live in small family groups. The fox is an opportunistic feeder hunting live prey like rodents such as rats, mice and rabbits, and also varying its diet with fruit, berries, reptiles, birds eggs, young birds, beetles and other insects like grasshoppers. The red fox normally avoids humans, but is not averse to attacking hen houses at night and, not satisfied with taking one hen, usually kills the whole flock. Romanticised in books, films and on television, the fox has become an iconic creature, Beatrix Potter having characterised him as Mr Tod and other authors, and entertainers too, having turned him into a popular children’s favourite like Basil Brush. Male foxes are often known as tods, reynards or simply dogs, while the females are vixens and the young cubs. Watching the cubs romping and wrestling near their home earth is an enchanting experience, but reynard has assumed a rather different character as he has moved into town or city to take advantage of the easy lifestyle offered by man, who throws away good food and often feeds foxes deliberately.
The urban fox has penetrated the very centres of the biggest cities and it is a common occurrence for people in the London suburbs, and built-up areas in other towns and cities far from the countryside, to find foxes in their gardens and inside their houses and outbuildings. They frequently make their homes in city centre parks and playing fields, and the double barks of the dogs and eerie mating screams of the vixens are becoming familiar sounds in unexpected places.
Little wonder the fox appears in folklore as a cunning creature, often with magical powers, and many stories are told of his ability to outwit packs of hounds by intelligent ploys to throw his pursuers off the scent. Fox hunting with packs of foxhounds originated in the 16th century as a sport and also as a way of keeping numbers down to protect farm stock. Banned in Scotland in 2002 and in England and Wales in 2005, its opponents regard it as cruel and unnecessary but proponents argue there is no other efficient or effective method of pest control.