Patrick Hook looks at the problem of takeaway foxes; animals trapped and cared for then dumped in more rural areas by charities and well-meaning people
If you do much foxing you are doubtless aware that most farmers are worried to some extent about ‘drop-outs’ — urban foxes dumped in countryside, trapped foxes released on or close to their land by some of the animal charities. It’s a regular occurrence for me to have to reassure the people I shoot for that I haven’t seen any recent evidence of this happening in the area. It’s important to know as much as you can about the subject to gain their confidence. If you don’t hit the right spot, they go away convinced that there are lots of foxes about and may start asking other people to come and shoot them instead. This isn’t good either for your reputation nor for maintaining your permissions.
The problem usually starts when the fox population grows too big in a nearby urban area. Complaints start to be made about all the nasty things that go hand in hand with vulpine presence: piles of excrement in gardens, children’s toys being chewed up, cats either being terrorised or going missing, bins being upended. Traps are put out and those caught are taken off to local ‘shelters’. After a spell, they are then released back into the wild. This is often done close to a chicken farm or other food-rich spot.
Urban foxes dumped in countryside
Working out just what has been going on can be very difficult. There are innumerable tales going round in shooting circles, with most coming from a ‘friend of a friend’, or being overheard ‘down the pub’ or the local gun shop. Many concern lorries or vans turning up in unexpected places and dumping large numbers of unwanted foxes.
I have never witnessed a release but I have certainly seen evidence that it’s happened in my area. The surest signs are when you suddenly either see lots of disoriented foxes or get a flurry of calls about them lurking around livestock. I feel genuinely sorry for the foxes — one minute they’re living the high life in some urban area, eating leftover burgers, nice bowls of food left out for them by well-meaning householders and having an easy time. The next, they’re rounded up and dumped in another’s fox’s territory and expected to find and kill their own food.
I first came across released foxes many years ago, when I saw several confused animals wandering about that clearly hadn’t a clue where they were. They had no idea how to get through the hedges — thick Devon banks in this part of the world — where the crossing points were or what was going on. They all seemed nervous — they’d probably encountered local animals keen on ejecting any intruders.
Among the giveaway signs were that most of them had large patches of treated mange. Others had had their tails amputated. Since the farm was close to the North Devon link road, a busy dual carriageway, the likeliest explanation was that they’d been transported to a quiet lay-by then released.
Is it an offence?
Is it an offence to dump urban foxes in countryside? Whether it is a criminal offence to do this has not, as far as I know, ever been tested in a court of law. It may well, for instance, be in contravention of the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960, which makes it an offence to abandon an animal, or permit it to be abandoned, “in circumstances likely to cause the animal any unnecessary suffering”. That such suffering does often occur is in no doubt in my mind, but then I’m not a lawyer.
It has been suggested that when some solid evidence is obtained as to a mass release one of the shooting organisations should bring about a prosecution. The problem with this is that, as far as I’m aware, each shelter is an independent legal entity. Therefore, though you may be able to hold one to account, there will still be a large number left in operation.
A better option would be to make it both politically and socially unacceptable to do it in the first place. But I won’t be holding my breath on this count.
What if you suspect fox dumping near you
If you suspect that mass releases of foxes are happening your area, you can never relax. The most important thing is to be aware of the issue so that you can reassure your farmers that you are always keeping an eye out on their behalf. Some of the key signs are:
• Lots of foxes suddenly appearing where previously there were very few and the presence of foxes that seem unafraid of humans. This may not be unusual when close to towns.
• Daylight raids on livestock, especially animals kept close to houses such as ducks, chickens and pet rabbits. Bear in mind that this can also happen when fox parents are desperately trying to feed hungry cubs.
• The unexpected appearance of foxes with mange – sometimes this has clearly been treated, other times not. Keep any dogs well away from affected animals.
• Other clues are amputations, evidence of stitches on wounds, tattoos and even — so I’ve been told — ear tags with identification numbers.