The question is, when did The Great Fox Panic begin? Was it when a pair of nine-month-old twins were bitten in their crib, or when a hefty civil servant was robbed of his garlic bread by a thug with four legs and a bushy red tail?
The Great Fox Panic has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch – that's a different type of stealthy ambush. No, this is about the tension between the British city dweller and the animal that shares his garden and garbage, and is increasingly shredding his last nerve: vulpes vulpes, the red fox.
There are about 33,000 urban foxes in Britain, more than anywhere else in the world (they make up about 14 per cent of the country's fox population). They dig under houses in Manchester and ride the Tube escalators in London and glide silently past people walking home from the pub in Bristol. “It used to be startling to see a fox in London,” wrote the novelist China Miéville, in a much-discussed New York Times article about decay in the British capital. “… Now you spot them on any late-night jog.”
Or at the top of the city: A young fox spent two weeks living on lunchbox leftovers on the 72nd floor of the Shard, the unfinished skyscraper that is now the tallest building in London. Construction workers dubbed him “Romeo” before he was returned to his padding ground around London Bridge.
That's the charming side of the story: A fine animal upholding his species' reputation for cunning. Another aspect is getting more attention these days, which is the fox as menace.
The most serious story involved a pair of nine-month old twin girls, who were attacked in their bedroom in Hackney, central London, in 2010. Their mother heard a cry and went into their upstairs bedroom. “I saw the fox,” Pauline Koupparis told the BBC, “and it wasn't even scared of me.” Other incidents have been recorded in the past couple of years: a London lawyer who woke in her bed to find a fox biting her ear; another woman who had her finger bitten.
Last month, a civil servant named Seb Baker raised eyebrows (and probably some chuckles around the office) when he reported that he'd been accosted by a fox who stole the garlic bread from his shopping bag in broad daylight.
In the same week, 650 km to the north, a farmer in rural Scotland shot the largest fox ever recorded in Britain: At 17 kg, it was roughly three times the average size of its city cousin. It was “a stonking beast” in the words of the Sun tabloid, which then ran stories on the peril posed by monster foxes.
These stories are dinner-party delicacies in London, replacing the perennial favourite subjects of crime and real-estate prices: Foxes are out of control. They're cheeky beggars, bold as brass, creatures that foul gardens and make a ruckus, when in flagrante, that sounds like humans being flayed. “These foxes are not only getting bolder, but bigger,” wrote a columnist in the Telegraph.
The only problem? It's not true. The foxes in Britain's cities are not growing in size or number, according to the people who study them. “There are probably fewer urban foxes than there were 20 years ago, not more,” says Stephen Harris, head of the Mammal Research Unit at Bristol University. A bout of sarcoptic mange nearly wiped out the urban fox in the mid-1990s; numbers are only now recovering.
Prof. Harris has been studying foxes for more than forty years, and in that time he hasn't seen any data to suggest they're getting larger (the average city-dwelling male fox weighs between four and eight kilos, a female slightly less.) In fact, they might even become smaller over time, because the weather in a fox's birth year affects its weight: “If we get more and more hot dry summers, which is what climate change predicts, we would actually expect fox sizes to go down, not up.''
What about the charge that they've become daylight robbers, the living embodiment of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox? “Well, brazen is just another word for opportunistic and intelligent,” says Trevor Williams, who has run a rescue operation called The Fox Project for 21 years. “If they're bold, it's because they've become used to us, and they know we're slow, lumbering creatures who aren't going to catch them. They've got our measure.”
For eight decades, since fox habitats began to be absorbed by expanding British cities, homo sapiens and vulpes vulpes have lived together in relative peace. Even though many councils shot foxes up until the early 1980s, they were viewed as less of a pest than their country cousins. For one thing, urban foxes mainly live on garbage and rarely attack or kill other mammals (about 10 per cent of households in Bristol put out food for foxes, according to Prof. Harris).
So what explains The Great Fox Panic? Both Prof. Harris and Mr. Williams believe that the fox is facing the combined threat of the pest-control industry (which wants to kill them) and the hunting fraternity (which wants to do the same, only on horseback).
“Much of the press is pro-hunting,” says Prof. Harris. “There's a huge anti-fox campaign to try to bring back hunting, so we get never-ending diatribes and rubbish about foxes in the press. Which I read with despair.”
In 2005, the Hunting Act made it illegal to hunt mammals using dogs, effectively outlawing the sport that Oscar Wilde called “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” Still, many hunts in Britain continue to operate, by using a “scent trail” instead of chasing live foxes.
Two years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold a free vote in the House of Commons, saying “I always thought the ban was a mistake.”
However, that was before the Conservative Party became terrified of being identified as the Toff's Party; Mr. Cameron has since maintained a deafening silence on hunting and no vote is in sight. City politics may be the country fox's saviour.
As for the city fox, he'll have to learn to keep his head down and his face out of people's shopping bags if he wants to stay out of trouble. A little bit of sly will go a long way.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's London bureau.