Foxed again

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Posted on: 06 September 2011 by Alexander Hay

Despite the media furore, urban foxes continue to win both new ground and the PR war

Not knowing who one's neighbours are these days is a common state of affairs. In a way, it's an improvement as most of the neighbours I've known in my time have been dreadful in an 'oh look, the drug squad's kicking in the door' sort of way.

One of my current neighbours, however, is much nicer, seldom causing noise (except late at night during the Summer) and usually found scurrying away every time I see him.

True, being four-legged and with a bushy tail, he's not the most typical of neighbours. He also has to endure the stigma of being ginger. But my local urban fox is still pleasant company, sniffing around the bins and occasionally regarding me with some of the interest I regard him.

Then there is the fox who runs across the road near my local sport centre, dodging cars despite the occasional deliberate attempt to run him over. Or the Vixen whose cubs watch me as I speed past their home on a Northern Line embankment. (They seem to have a thing for railways, given how they like to make their homes near train tracks.) Or the fox who lived at the Harrow Campus of the University of Westminster, who'd trot past nonchalantly, looking up as if to say 'how do you do?'

They're certainly in the news these days. One London-based fox has learned to climb trees and was spotted sunning himself on the canopy. Another has become popular with MPs in Parliament, living in the shadow of Big Ben and generally sleeping safe in the knowledge that Parliament voted for a fox hunting ban.

And yet, there also seems to be an anti-fox narrative of late, mainly in the right wing press. The Daily Mail and, to a lesser extent, The Telegraph, is full of grisly stories about foxes wrecking houses, savaging pets, adults and children, and turning into giant mutants.

Many of these stories are hyped up beyond what really happened. Like the tale of the poor woman who woke up one night to find a young fox sitting on her chest. She could be forgiven for being aghast given her phobia towards the beasts. The flippant, laid-back curiosity of the fox himself (or herself) was equally predictable. The woman's husband, whose response was to get a camera and start taking pictures, was - depressingly - also typical of our media-saturated breed. Nonetheless, the lurid press coverage made it sound like the poor woman had been visited in her bed by a bin-rifling hellhound.

The most notorious case, however, involved two twin baby girls being savaged by a fox that had made it into their bedroom. It certainly shocked the nation. Nonetheless, while this met the requirements of most news coverage (namely, making parents panic over their precious little snowflakes), the fact that it - and other fox attacks - was reported at all reveals the truth of the matter. Fox attacks are rare enough to be news worthy. But why such interest now?

The main clue lies in who's doing the reporting. The Mail and The Telegraph have made no attempt to hide their anger at the 2004 ban on hunting with hounds. The emphasis on fox attacks seems to be an attempt to drive public opinion against Ol' Reynard and bring about the glorious day when the uneatable is once again pursued by the unspeakable. (Though, given how widely the ban is flouted, one wonders why they even bother.)

Alas for the hunters, they have been outfoxed. A planned attempt by the Conservative party to overturn the bill was vetoed by many of the younger, less eccentrically violent MPs in its ranks (who are no doubt fond of the foxes in their midst). Public opinion remains stubbornly pro-fox. The hunting lobby may yet, of course, resort to warnings that foxes who live to 100 years sprout extra tails and turn into evil shapeshifters (as they do in Japan, apparently), but only if the Mail can tie it in with a Cancer scare and mothers with careers being made to feel guilty.

The flow of history, meanwhile, favours the fox. Their numbers grow ever higher in our towns and cities. A breeding experiment in Siberia has even domesticated them. So, even as he scurries away, his claws clacking on the concrete, my local fox must surely know on some level that he's won yet another victory against us mere dimwitted humans.

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Alexander Hay

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