Painting the town red
PUBLISHED: 11:49 13 February 2015
Andrew fallan shares his expertise in essex wildlife with us, revealing top locations to find some special species as well as the unusual animals you can discover in your own back garden
In January’s Essex Life, I discussed what is undoubtedly the best thing about my adopted hometown of Southend on Sea, namely the dramatic backdrop of the Thames Estuary and the wonderful wildlife that can be seen there, especially the seals. As somebody who is very much an urban dweller by default rather than by choice, I am prone to moaning about living in Southend, but another thing I really love about this town is that its streets and back alleys are home to that most metropolitan of mammals, the ubiquitous urban fox.
My own neighbourhood seems to be quite a stronghold for foxes, their bold, bushy-tailed presence bringing a much-needed touch of wildness and beauty to an otherwise humdrum urban setting. Often, all I need do in order to lay eyes on these surprisingly petite creatures – ostensibly doglike yet with
a positively feline athletic prowess – is open my bedroom curtains after dark and press my face to the window, from where I can observe the comings and goings of their secret night-time world. On one occasion, a snowy midwinter’s night, I even glimpsed a pair of foxes mating
in my next-door neighbour’s garden.
But you don’t need to wait until nightfall in order to encounter these remarkable animals. One time, late one morning I believe, my wife and I happened upon a fox nonchalantly trotting along our street, while on another occasion, at about the same time of day, I noticed one doing likewise amid the commercial bustle of a road lined with shops and restaurants adjoining Southend town centre, only feet away from oblivious shoppers and startled onlookers, including myself.
Urban foxes certainly seem to be quite brazen, fearless even, but this doesn’t mean they are out of control, as some might presume. Quite apart from the fact that their population is self-regulating, foxes do not actually have an aggressive nature and the popular notion that they kill for pleasure is pure myth. In addition, their apparent brashness is more a reflection of their fleet-footed self-assurance in the face of us lumbering humans than it is of anything remotely sinister; in short, foxes have learnt that they can easily outrun us if necessary, so they are not overly bothered by our presence.
Most people like urban foxes, though in recent years there has been much talk of their alleged growing menace, fuelled by tales of these creatures entering people’s homes and even attacking their children. I’m certainly no expert, but it’s quite clear to me that the hype generated by these and similar stories, which I generally take with a hefty pinch of salt anyway, says far more about our own ignorance and prejudice than it does about any actual danger posed by foxes. In any event, many of the problems they are deemed to present very much seem to be of our own making.
Although there is nothing wrong with feeding urban foxes as long as it’s done responsibly, those animals that have approached humans or entered their houses have likely done so as a result of being habituated to associate us with food. It is also not unknown for householders to experience the odd nip from the jaws of a fox, yet this is often a result of that person very unwisely seeking to hand-feed them. Similarly, while it is something of a myth that urban foxes rifle through bins for food — they don’t actually need our leftovers in order to survive — it’s fair to say that they probably wouldn’t have found our towns and cities quite so inviting if it weren’t for our plentiful and often carelessly discarded food waste. And that’s quite apart from the fact that it is our housing developments that swallowed up their existing rural habitat in the first place.
We should also remember that foxes are highly adaptable opportunistic predators. Although they pose little risk to cats and dogs — there are even tales of them befriending one another — they will take smaller animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs if they are not housed securely. Coincidentally, as urban foxes are no less skilled hunters than their rural counterparts, they will also prey on rats and mice, likely playing a vital role in keeping their numbers in check, though unfortunately this doesn’t make for terribly gripping media coverage.
During the cold depths of winter, when foxes are breeding, the chilling scream of the vixen will pierce the stillness of the dead of night, which, for the uninitiated, can be quite disconcerting. To some, this blood-curdling shriek may be seen as a nuisance, but for me it is a welcome source of excitement, not to mention a fitting symbol of the wildness on our doorstep that these unfairly maligned, stunningly beautiful and wonderfully charismatic creatures so perfectly embody.
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Andrew Fallan is the author of Winging it - Birding for low-flyers, published by Brambleby Books, and is currently living in Southend. You can read more from andrew in Essex life as he explores our more spectacular species and the wilder locations of Essex as part of this regular monthly column