Thursday, 8 December 2011

Things that go screech in the night

Foxes are a bit thin on the ground around these parts, no doubt a reflection of the game-rearing interests and their need to protect naïve pheasants released for the shoot. Although this pattern is repeated over much of the county there are places where foxes seem to be doing well. One of these is Norwich, where an urban fox population has become well established. In some parts of the city foxes can be seen abroad in daylight; nonchalant in their habits, they can be seen wandering down the quieter suburban streets, stretching out on sun-drenched lawns or scavenging discarded food.

It is at this time of the year that some of these urban foxy goings on may attract the attentions of the city’s human residents. The fox mating season is underway, and will continue through into March, with peak activity from December to February. Fox courtship is a noisy affair, the characteristic triple bark now accompanied by a blood-curdling scream. Once, during my student days in Southampton, I returned home to discover that my housemates were about to call the police. Being a mixture of geologists, engineers and media students, they were unfamiliar with fox vocalisations and had mistaken the ‘scream’ for that of someone being attacked on the rough patch of ground that bordered our house!

Foxes are territorial, typically living in family groups that share a joint territory. Under certain conditions, such as where there is an abundance of food, subordinate individuals may also be present. These tend to be young from the previous year and they may help to rear the dominant vixen’s cubs. Fox society varies according to habitat, so the patterns seen in the wider countryside often differ from what is seen within urban areas.

Courtship is centred on the female’s reproductive status. Although she undergoes a single period of oestrus, lasting for roughly three weeks, fertilisation appears to be limited to a much smaller three-day window. Because of this the male shadows his female very closely, the male adopting a characteristic posture in which he holds his tail higher than usual. Contrary to popular belief, successful matings can occur very quickly, perhaps lasting just a few seconds. However, pairs can become ‘locked’ together, adopting an uncomfortable looking position that may be held for an hour or more. The resulting pregnancy lasts for roughly seven and a half weeks, delivering young just as winter releases its grip. It will be another month, however, before the cubs will first show themselves above ground. They will then remain with their mother, developing their hunting skills, for several months, making the most of summer’s bounty before reaching independence with the approach of autumn.

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