Banner image: A fox in UK woodlands in winter

The unmistakeable red fox – Britain’s only species of wild dog - is often portrayed as a crafty and cunning character in literature. Take Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, for example, who consistently outsmarts three farmers in order to feed his family. This stereotypical depiction of the fox as a clever creature is rooted in reality, with various studies revealing that foxes have above average intelligence.  

They are highly adaptable and resourceful creatures, and during the last century have successfully expanded their habitat into urban areas as well as the countryside. A study by Brighton and Reading universities showed that the urban fox population has quadrupled in the last 20 years, with numbers totalling around 150,000. Built up areas are ideal locations for foxes to set up home, as they are not particularly picky when it comes to food. The contents of dustbins or discarded food can make up a substantial proportion of the diet of an urban fox – in addition of course to the food readily left out for foxes in gardens.

Image: UK urban foxes in a builder's yard

The diet of a rural fox is diverse too – consisting of both meat and plant matter. They hunt rabbits, mice, birds, frogs and earthworms, and will forage on fallen fruit. Blackberries are a particular favourite!

During the winter months, foxes become more active as they search for a mate, so there is a greater chance of seeing, or at least hearing one. Male foxes, which are generally stockier than females, roam widely at this time of year, so sadly road deaths are more common too.

Males alert females to their presence – and ward off rivals – with a distinctive ‘bark’ sound, which is a little more high-pitched than a dog’s. A receptive female, who is ready to mate, will respond with a call which is best described as a ‘scream’ – quite an unnerving sound if you’re lying awake on a cold winter’s night!

Foxes have been found to have at least 20 different types of call in their repertoire – which they use in greeting, during disputes and to make contact with others. Scent is another important communication tool. Foxes leave scent marks to show others where their territories are and convey information about their sexual state. Using scent marks to clearly define territorial borders helps to minimise disputes between foxes, as it can reduce the chances of a fox unknowingly straying into already claimed territory.

According to The Mammal Society, the size of a territory depends on habitat type and food availability. Where food is plentiful – for example in well-populated urban areas – territories tend to be small, whereas a countryside fox may claim a territory of up to 40 square kilometres.

Mating takes place between December and February and cubs are born in spring. Foxes create a den in which to raise their offspring. This is usually built from scratch - by digging a tunnel underground with a chamber at the end. Popular locations are sheltered places under trees, hedges, or in areas surrounded by thick vegetation such as brambles. In more built-up areas, foxes sometimes set up home underneath sheds and summerhouses and even in unoccupied buildings.

Often foxes will save themselves the effort of digging a den by commandeering an existing burrow network, such as a rabbit burrow, enlarging it and modifying it for their own needs. Occasionally they will even take over part of a badger sett, sharing it with any current occupants.

When the cubs are born, around March or April time, they spend the first few weeks of their lives inside the den. They are born blind, deaf and without fur, so need to be close to their mum for warmth in the early days until their fur starts to grow. During this time, the vixen will not leave the cubs at all. Once they are able to maintain their own warmth, the vixen will leave the den only to eat and drink. The male fox plays his part by leaving food for the vixen at the entrance to the den.

Image: Fox cubs explore a garden

The cubs emerge from the den at around four weeks old, and are gradually weaned from their mother’s milk onto solid food. The male continues to hunt and provide for the whole family at this stage, and at around six weeks old the vixen will join him and the cubs will be left alone for the first time as their parents seek out provisions.

At around three months old, the cubs will start to join their parents on hunting expeditions, and with the arrival of autumn, the young foxes will venture out on their own in order to claim their own territories.

During the winter months, many wild species become less active to conserve energy, but in contrast foxes become more visible as youngsters begin to stake out a territory and claim a mate. Look out for their vivid red coats dashing across fields – or even trotting down streets – and listen for their calls echoing through the landscape on cold wintry nights.

Help us plant and protect more woodland and habitats in the Forest

We're working hard to create habitat that benefits wildlife for now and in the future. To help us plant and maintain more woodlands in the Forest please consider joining with a small monthly donation:

Become a Friend of the Forest