I recently read an account which claimed that urban foxes sometimes band together to hunt or scavenge whereas rural foxes do not. I beg to differ. They most definitely do, as a scene I witnessed several years ago will illustrate.
I live in a rural part of north-east Scotland, and at the time of my story only farmers, keepers, shepherds and sportsmen ventured this far. One frosty morning, I was in the farmhouse kitchen as dawn broke. Outside the window, around 60 blackface ewes, heavy in lamb, were resting as others grazed. Suddenly, there was movement in the centre of the flock, and it became apparent that a fox was the cause.
From my vantage point, I could see the fox tearing out the belly of a dead ewe with its teeth, taking her unborn lambs before it moved on. I then noticed that the fox wasn?t working alone; it had companions who came in around the dead ewe, taking a mouthful when they were allowed. In all, six or seven foxes took their turn to eat, in a pack hierarchy. The other ewes were now aware of the predators in their midst, and the foxes drifted away, having sated their hunger for the time being.
We ventured out to investigate and came upon the dead ewe that had lain between her fellows while being dined upon. We suspected she had died of natural causes and simply been carrion that the foxes had happened upon, but the following morning brought the same spectacle, with foxes moving in around the slumbering ewes as they awoke. Several were feeding on a newly dead second ewe, and we wondered how it too could have succumbed to become fox fodder. Sinister goings on were afoot.
Through observation over the next few mornings, the shepherd concluded that the foxes were in a hunting party that was stealthily killing recumbent ewes, one at a time, during the early hours. Hunger drove the foxes to work in a pack, respecting their elders and each waiting its turn to feed. As dawn broke, the foxes would head for the cover of the forest, only to return again the following morning to repeat their killing spree.
These foxes had to be dealt with, so out came the rifle. The next morning, the first fox to prey on a ewe was picked off. There was no chance of a second shot, as both ewes and foxes scattered upon hearing the shot, so we had to be content with killing just one big dog fox.
The ewes were moved from their field to another, in the hope of breaking the pack?s routine. Thankfully it worked ? no more sheep were lost, and the pack of foxes was never seen again.
It was clear that rural foxes do work in a pack more often than is commonly believed. Elusive creatures, foxes are usually seen alone, as a vixen with her cubs, or as a pair during the mating season, but we often forget that it is a social animal living in a family group with territorial boundaries.
The number of foxes in our area has declined over the past 20 years as the badger population has risen. Unless that should change ? and I doubt that it will any time soon ? observing their pack behaviour from my window again is unlikely.
In spite of the sad demise of the ewes and their unborn lambs all those years ago, this fascinating spectacle rates as one of the best wildlife moments I have ever witnessed. One could wait a lifetime and never see something as extraordinary as that again.