The secret life of urban foxes discovered by wildlife artist Robert E Fuller
Then a friend told me of a thriving population living near his home in York and I decided to use the opportunity to get up close to these animals to learn more about them.
And so began a five-year project to watch foxes in my friend Colin’s city garden. It took me some time to adjust to the experience of watching wildlife in a city and I found that unlike the foxes, which had adapted well to urban life, I was quite out of my comfort zone.
But it was worth the effort because this spring I was able to enjoy some incredible views of an endearing family of foxes and their cubs.
The project began with Colin and I developing a safe haven for the foxes. We dug a bespoke den hidden behind some logs and rigged it with surveillance cameras.
However, despite having created the perfect home for them, they often had their own ideas and this year Colin rang to say the vixen had given birth elsewhere.
I drove to York to see if I could find out where she and the cubs were living. I knew there was an existing den site 150 metres away, bang in the middle of a massive patch of brambles, so I went there first.
The area was littered with the remains of rabbit and the discarded wings and tail feathers of pigeon and pheasant. I picked up a wing feather to take a closer look. The ends had been chewed and since foxes are one of the few predators to do this, I was confident they were here.
At one of the entrance holes to the den, I also spotted that the ground was worn smooth and the vegetation trampled, a sign that the young cubs played here. I could even smell the musky aroma of fox.
I set up some remote cameras, taking care not to disturb them, and returned a few days later. The footage showed a vixen with two cubs and a dog fox. The dog seemed to be actively involved in raising the cubs.
The den site is close to a popular dog-walking area and I held my breath as I then watched a large, black dog on the screen. It followed its nose directly to the fox home and looked down one of the entrance holes.
At night, the microphones recorded the sounds of young people who had unknowingly congregated close by, lighting campfires and playing music loudly. It was interesting to see the different pressures urban foxes experience.
As the cubs grew more mobile and began to spend more time above ground, the vixen grew more afraid for their safety. But the youngsters continued to play and tumble about, unaware of how vulnerable they were.
This blissful innocence continued until the fox cubs were about 10-13 weeks old. At this point foxes reach what is known as a ‘neophobic’ stage of development, when they become cautious of unfamiliar objects, particularly humans, and seem to trust only the few family members that they have grown up with.
The vixen was clearly stressed about their safety and eventually this worked to my advantage because she moved out of her bramble-patch den and into the comparative haven of Colin’s garden – where of course I had already built her a ready-made home for her youngsters to explore the world in safety.
I headed into York to spend an evening watching the young family from a hide I had built close by. It was not long before I heard a clatter of paws. I peered through my camouflage netting to see the dog fox bounding skilfully on top of a 6ft high wooden boundary fence.
It surveyed the area briefly then leapt down into the garden. I watched it sniff around the patch before cocking its leg on one of my remote cameras and slinking off through a hole in the fence to continue patrolling its territory.
Soon after, the female emerged through the same hole in the fence. Trotting alongside her was one of her cubs. It was the first time I had seen this cub in the flesh, even though I felt like I already knew it well from the remote cameras.
The young cub lolloped past me, the sunlight picking out a halo of long hairs that were just poking through its woolly coat. Soon a second cub caught up with the others.
Together the cubs clambered over the logs and then began chasing each other around in circles. Next, they disappeared through the entrance to the fox den I had built and I watched on the screens connected to the hidden cameras as they collapsed, exhausted by their antics, and curled up for a short nap. By now I had been watching them all evening and the light was failing, so I left them in peace and headed home.
Colin continued to keep me up to date with sightings and sent me regular updates from the cameras. One day he rang about something baffling he had noticed: apparently there were now more than two fox cubs in his garden.
I headed back into York to see the extra cubs for myself. I settled into my hide and, as if on cue, the vixen materialised with her two cubs. She began to suckle them and behind her I spotted a small head appearing through the fence, then another, then another. Before I knew it a further three cubs had joined the other two and the vixen was now suckling five cubs.
Over the next week, the cameras captured fox cubs tumbling about everywhere. It was difficult to keep tabs on them all and it took me several attempts before I finally counted a total of 10.
This was utterly puzzling. Foxes rarely have more than six cubs in one litter. Then a second vixen appeared and I realised that two vixens had joined forces to raise their cubs together.
I have heard of vixens that are related to one another helping out with cub-rearing duties and had even read about alloparental behaviour, where ‘aunties’ help to raise offspring that are not their own. This was two vixens, each with cubs of their own, raising their cubs in one large ‘family’.
It just shows how when it comes to wildlife there is always so much more to learn. I had headed to York in the hope of studying one family of urban foxes and had ended up with much more than I bargained for.
And of course, after years of catching glimpses of foxes in the countryside, it was also so amazing to watch them so closely in York.