Dave Wall's guide to the Irish urban fox population
19 August 2004
Urban foxes - are they common?
Urban foxes are very common in Dublin. They are found throughout the city and suburbs. Foxes can be seen at night roaming Grafton Street and O'Connell Street, with dens near Dail Eireann. In the suburbs, foxes do best in estates with large gardens.
Areas like Sandymount have very high densities of foxes but they are also found in industrial estates and in some council housing areas. These days, Dublin probably has a similar density of urban foxes to English cities like Bristol or London.
I thought I saw a puddy-fox!
If you thought you saw a fox in your garden, then chances are you were right! In areas of Dublin where foxes are common, most houses will be visited by a fox at some stage of the night. If they don't visit your back garden, then they'll almost certainly trot through the front garden on their nightly explorations. If you see a fox in the garden…don't panic!
Foxes are pretty harmless and they will run away if approached. However, as with all wild animals, never try to corner a fox as it may bite in panic. Often people are upset by the boldness of urban foxes. Some will not run away, even when shouted at from a window. Others can be seen strolling down public roads in broad daylight! This is because urban foxes have become habituated to the noise and smells of the city. If you approach them, however, they will run away.
Should I feed 'my' foxes and with what?
The answer to this depends on your motives. If you think the fox looks skinny and needs fattening, don't bother. Foxes are slinky little animals by nature and they are more than able to feed themselves, especially in a food-rich environment like Dublin. If, however, you want to attract foxes so you can watch them, then by all means do. But always place the food well away from the house in a spot you can see from your window. Feeding foxes near the house is asking for trouble.
Foxes are inquisitive animals and an open door or window will be explored. It's not unheard of for foxes to take up residence inside houses or to become trapped in a basement or even an attic! Also, never feed foxes by hand - someone will end up getting bitten and the foxes will pay the price.
You can feed foxes any type of food. They will eat meat, vegetables, fruit, etc. Scraps will do just fine. Don't over-feed them; remember a lot of your neighbours are probably doing the same thing.
I have a den in my garden
A lot of urban fox dens are located in disused gardens or overgrown shrubberies. Foxes mate in January/February. At this time of year you may hear the vixen screaming in the night. Often these calls can be quite like a child and it's not unknown for the Gardai to be called out to investigate such screams!
In March/April, the vixen gives birth to, typically, four or five cubs in the den. The cubs are born blind and have a chocolate-coloured coat; at this stage they look very un-fox-like. Around June, they emerge from the den looking like mini-foxes, with a coat like the parents. During the summer, they will spend a lot of time above ground, lying up in bushes and long grass.
The cubs are playful and inquisitive, so expect flowerbeds to suffer a bit and toys, balls, shoes, etc. to get chewed upon. From late September on, the cubs begin to disperse to find their own territories and your garden will become peaceful once more.
How do I get rid of them?
Some people love them and others (especially keen gardeners) dislike them. Foxes may do damage to lawns and flowerbeds as they root around for grubs and insects. Try to remember that the foxes are getting rid of pests such as beetles, slugs and grubs as well as rats and mice. Try to be patient.
If you absolutely can't stand them, then ask for professional advice rather than trying to solve the problem yourself. Never ever try to poison your foxes with rat poison. This results in terrible suffering to the fox and you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law if found out.
Killing foxes will not solve the problem and you risk terrible fallout with neighbours who may be feeding them. For every fox you kill, there are ten more in the neighbourhood waiting to move in, so you'll only get a few weeks of relief at most. This is why councils in England gave up fox control - it cost a fortune to kill the foxes and it made little or no impact on the population.
One solution often offered by some welfare groups is to re-locate the foxes to the countryside. This may sound like a good idea, but it is cruel to the fox. A relocated fox will find itself in an alien environment, without a territory, and will probably die as a result of the relocation.
Urban foxes (and, incidentally, urban hedgehogs) belong in the city. If you wish to get foxes out of your garden, then it's best done using repellents.
Remember that even if you succeed in getting the foxes to move den, you will always have foxes passing through your garden. It is virtually impossible to keep foxes out of an entire garden. Noise and smell repellents will only work for a short time before the fox becomes used to it. You may be able to protect a small area of garden using smelly repellents but even this may not work for long.
A fox ate my cat, gerbil, rabbit, hamster, etc.
Often I get reports of foxes killing cats. Most are found to be untrue on further investigation. Foxes may indeed kill kittens or very old or ill cats (it's worth mentioning here that cats may kill fox cubs too) but in the vast majority of cat-fox interactions, the cat wins.
I've seen cats frightening foxes away from their meals through hissing and the odd well-placed scratch. Foxes may be found to be in possession of cat remains, but these are most probably the scavenged remains of cats killed on the roads.
Foxes will kill rabbits, rodents and birds. I have heard of pet owners complaining of losing gerbil after gerbil to the local fox. If you know the fox is in the area, then more fool you for re-stocking its dinner plate! The only safe way to keep small pets outside, where you have foxes passing through, is to build a fox-proof run.
Ideally, you should build a run that totally surrounds the hutch/living quarters and the feeding/exercise area. The run should be built from heavy chain link fence or weld mesh (with chicken wire on the inside to keep the pets in). Chicken-wire alone will not keep a fox out. You should bury the chain link to a depth of 12 inches and roof the enclosure with the same fencing. Otherwise keep the pets indoors.
Do foxes carry disease?
The simple answer is yes, but probably nothing worse than an average dog or cat. The main exception to this is mange. Urban foxes suffer greatly from mange and it spreads quickly from fox to fox. Fox-mange can infect dogs but not cats. In very exceptional cases, it may infect humans, but in my years working with mangy foxes, I've never caught it.
Infected dogs can be successfully treated with injections and a medicated soap. Dublin vets are seeing an increased number of cases of dogs infected by fox-mange. Treating the foxes themselves is harder but it can be done successfully. A sympathetic vet is needed and the process involves baiting sausages or chicken with Ivomec and feeding this to the infected foxes. The success rate is quite high but it requires time and patience to ensure the medicine only gets to the infected foxes.
Do other Irish cities have urban foxes?
Yes, foxes have been reported from Belfast, Cork and Shannon.
A fox bred with my dog
No chance mate! Foxes and dogs are not closely related and are incompatible for breeding.
I found a fox cub. What do I do?
Unless it is in imminent danger (e.g. on the road). leave it be - the mother will be nearby waiting for you to go. If it is in danger, then move it to a safe place nearby and leave it; the mother will find it when she returns. If you find a cub and are sure it has been orphaned (e.g. if you find the dead vixen close by or the den is in the garden and you haven't seen the vixen for a long time), then call your local animal welfare group for advice.
Never be tempted to raise a fox yourself. They are a lot of work and the smell will decimate your circle of friends to just those with chronic nose blockages!
I found a dead fox. What do I do?
If it is in a public space, contact your local authority to remove it.
About Dave Wall
Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin's urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.