Stand at the bar of many rural pubs in Britain and you are almost certain to meet someone who has a story about the release of urban foxes into the countryside – more commonly known as ‘fox dumping’.
According to these stories, pest controllers, town councils or animal welfare organisations are catching foxes from gardens or recovering injured foxes from road traffic accidents and shipping them into the woods and fields outside their metropolitan boundaries to set them free in the wild.
Why do they do this?
The likely reason, say the bar flies, is that the urban public insists the foxes are not put down – presumably to avoid a guilty conscience. Little do they know, of course, that the released fox stands little or no chance of survival in the countryside.
“Not only will it struggle to forage for wild food without its regular supply of rubbish bins and hand-outs, but, being used to humans and built-up areas, it will have little fear of a keeper or farmer with a high-powered rifle.”
The stories are endless. Indeed, only the other day I visited my local pub in the Cotswolds and spoke to a master of foxhounds (MFH) for a Northamptonshire hunt.
Few people are as tuned in to the jungle drums than an MFH, who hears most bits of rural tittle-tattle from the landowners, hunt members, vets, blacksmiths, grooms and landlords on his patch.
“Of course it goes on,” he told me. “I was talking to a keeper only last week, who was telling me his land had received the latest in a regular dump of foxes. At least once a year he will come across a pack of foxes, often up to 20 in number, that are wandering about like lost sheep. He says they don’t even run away when the shooting starts. They have found foxes with surgical stitches and foxes with amputated legs. They don’t stand a chance.”
George Thompson is a keeper on Anglesey. Over the past decade, he has seen regular evidence of fox dumping: “We haven’t found out who is doing it, but we’re trying to gather information,” he said. “A number of foxes that have been shot have then been found to have been operated on or castrated.
I saw some foxes one night and they simply didn’t have a clue what they were doing. They certainly weren’t wild, country foxes.” Friends of his have seen a black Volvo estate that they suspect is used to ferry the near-tame foxes across to the island, where they are then released. “There is no other explanation for it,” said George.
Columnist for The Times newspaper, Matthew Parris, recently courted controversy by highlighting a similar problem in the Derbyshire hills and dales where he lives. He reported that a band of keepers, who were watching for poachers, swooped on a suspicious white, unmarked vehicle to ask the driver and his friend their business.
Both refused to answer. From the van came a terrible stink. Inside were about a dozen live foxes. Still silent, the two men drove away. Weird. Nobody would dump live city rats in the countryside, and nobody should dump foxes.
The van was traced supposedly to individuals working for the RSPCA, who often have the finger of blame pointed at them for relocating foxes causing a nuisance in gardens or foxes reported injured. A spokeswoman for the society laughed when I asked if this was something they would condone. “We hear these stories so often,” she said. “But there is never any evidence or details from whoever tells them. Anyone who dumps foxes in the countryside is guilty of animal cruelty, which is something we would investigate. If any ST readers have proof, please let us know and we’ll help. It is all hearsay and nobody ever comes forward. To be honest, there is no logic to fox dumping and I can’t understand why anyone would do it. The foxes will soon perish. At the RSPCA, we will return a fox to where we found it or to a piece of ground where we have permission from the landowner. Everything is well documented.”
Back in Derbyshire, however, farmers and keepers are adamant that foxes are being dumped in their area. I spoke to sheep farmer Chris Noon, who is certain it goes on: “I’m 101% positive,” he said. “The A515 near Buxton is a renowned place for dropping them off. We’ve seen packs of foxes, tame as dogs, hanging outside our lambing fields. They’re like window shoppers outside a supermarket, because they have no idea what to do. We shot them all and they were covered in medicinal purple spray. Whether it’s to cure their mange, I don’t know, but I’ve never seen it on a wild fox!”
For animal welfare consultant John Bryant, however, Chris’s story is simply another in a long line of untruths. Fox dumping is something of a cause celibre for John, who has spent much of the past two decades doing his utmost to expose the practice as a rural myth and hoax.
As a wildlife officer for the League Against Cruel Sports and latterly as a private operator, he has offered a reward of £1,000 to anyone who can prove foxes are being dumped: “It’s rubbish,” he told me. “I’ve followed up nearly all of these so-called sightings of urban foxes throughout the countryside and none of them has any evidence. Nobody who sees a van ever gets the number plate, though they’ll tell you exactly how many foxes get out of the back – it doesn’t add up. Besides, what’s the point of doing it? The foxes will survive a fortnight at best. And where are all the live traps in London with rows of foxes in them? It’s garbage. Eighty per cent of urban folk are happy with foxes and many of them feed them, so why would they want to send them to the countryside where they will be snared or shot.”
John believes that these tamer foxes are simply young, boisterous, wild foxes that have yet to learn to fear humans. “They are hooligan cubs that may have lost their parents, and are hungry and lost. It is natural for them to start foraging by buildings or easier targets, such as lambing fields.”
However, John did concede that certain pest controllers will move foxes from borough to borough, and even move the occasional fox out of towns into the countryside. Is that not proof of fox dumping? Should he not award himself £1,000? “There may be the odd irresponsible operator,” he admitted, “but nobody with the interests of foxes at heart would ever do it when they have such little chance of survival. The notion of mass dumpings, 20 or 40 at a go, is just rubbish. If anyone has proof, please come forward and receive your reward.”
Lindsay Hill, of the Union of Country Sports Workers, rejects John Bryant’s opinion. She carried out an investigation into fox dumping and received countless reports from her members from across the UK. “This is a nationwide problem,” she said. “What planet are these people from who release foxes into an environment where they will starve to death.
I can only imagine that whoever is doing it, and I don’t think we have to look far past the councils, are saying ‘this is not our problem – over to you in the countryside’. I suspect they are being asked to promise they will not kill foxes handed over by the public and this is their response. It would be much more humane to put them down rather than hand the problem out to us.”
So, fox dumping – a rural myth or wildlife crime? If this truly is a problem in the countryside, then it’s obvious it needs to be stopped. If any readers have information on this problem, ST would be delighted to hear from you.