| Foxes' friends and foes say an urban cull is not the answer|
|Bruce Lindsay-Smith recounts a night spent sitting in the dark at an upstairs window of a west London house with a semi-automatic .30M1 carbine rifle fitted with night sights and a silencer. He knew when foxes had come into the garden below because the previous night he had set up a wildlife stealth camera and put out a plate of dog food.|
The first one cautiously sniffed the food around 1am and set off a sensor that warned Lindsay-Smith. There was barely a sound as he leaned out of the window and killed it stone dead. A second followed a few minutes later. He shot it, too. After just over an hour, there were seven dead foxes by the plate, he recalls.
"I shot 13 in two hours in one garden once. After that the lady didn't have a problem for a long time," he says.
Lindsay-Smith is one of perhaps 100 people licensed to shoot foxes anywhere in London. He works with a team of five and is called in by householders, businessmen, local authorities, hospitals, even the army to clear foxes from gardens, construction sites and parks, and says he kills "around 1,500" a year. He prefers night-shooting, but says he will also trap foxes and then kill them "humanely", dig up their earths or just block their runs.
"They're everywhere now, definitely more than there used to be. I doubt there's a square mile in London that does not have foxes now. They say there's 50,000 in England, I reckon half of them are in London."
But Lindsay-Smith is sceptical about Boris Johnson's call this week for city-wide action to control fox numbers after an attack on a four-week-old baby in Bromley, south-east London. The fox was said to have gone through an open door and up the stairs, then to have dragged the baby out of his cot and bitten off a finger.
"[A cull] would need each council to have a call centre to identify where the foxes are. It would need a leaflet drop to every household. It would need teams of people to find out which gardens were suitable to shoot them in. It would need a risk assessment to find out whether it's best to do a night shoot or to set traps. It would have to be done area by area. You cannot just shoot in a paved area because of ricochets. It is possible but there are not many options …" says Lindsay-Smith.
According to the London mayor, local councils must control foxes with measures up to and including a cull. "Personally I wouldn't rule anything in or out but this is a matter on which the boroughs must take the lead. Pest control falls to them. Attacks like that on this little boy thankfully are rare but foxes are a growing menace," he said this week.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the mayor said that Johnson planned to raise the issue of a cull with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and had written to the chair of London councils calling for the attack to be discussed at their next meeting.
But this week animal welfare groups, pest control companies, shooters, fox experts and politicians have all argued that a cull would be pointless. Many claim supporters of hunting have stoked up hysteria about urban foxes to make it politically more acceptable to lift the 2004 hunting ban in rural areas. Richard Moseley, technical manager at the British Pest Control Association, said a cull was unlikely to work. "My concern is that it would be a kneejerk reaction. First you have to decide what level of numbers you want to bring the population down to. If you just remove the pest, the area will get reinfested. If you went for traps, people would have to go to check them twice a day. A cull would not be impossible but it would be very difficult. It would need very many months to control the population and it would also be very expensive."
Animal welfare groups say councils have been trying for 60 years to reduce fox numbers through urban kills, and that people should learn to live with wildlife. "There has never been a successful urban cull. We have to learn to manage our environment to become less suitable to the fox. Foxes come close to properties either because they feel safe or because there is plentiful food. That's what you need to address. Some people will always continue to feed them," said John Bryant, director of Humane Urban Wildlife Deterrence, which gives advice on how to deter foxes from properties.
"You would have to order people to have cage traps in their gardens, or have people wandering around the streets at night with guns. You would need a change in the law if you wanted to put poison down. Or you would need all the cats and dogs in a city to be kept indoors. You could theoretically introduce a virus but that could jump into the dog population. It would be very dangerous," he said.
"The only way to exterminate foxes in London would be to put a 12ft fence round the city to stop rural foxes coming in. It's totally pointless because within days [of clearing an area] other foxes will move in. A cull would not help much. You would just get a temporary void which would soon be filled by other foxes. It would be incredibly problematic. Experience shows culling urban foxes doesn't work. The survivors breed back within one season."
The University of Bristol's mammal research unit has calculated there are 225,000 rural foxes and 33,000 in cities, but the 2004 hunt ban is thought to have increased numbers in some places. In London, it is thought the fox population is stable.
"What we may be seeing is a change of behaviour in the urban fox. They may be getting tamer, coming closer to properties. If that is so, it's because people are feeding them," said Bryant.
Professional shooters this week said any attempts at a cull could be upset by anti-hunt campaigners and fox lovers. "It's all right for Boris to say let's have a cull, but how would it work? Do you go to all the households on a street. Legally, you can't go near main roads," said another licensed shooter who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals by anti-hunt supporters.
"The fox is a very popular animal, so any attempted cull would be rendered almost impossible by people trying to release foxes from traps and even putting themselves between the fox and the shooters," he said.
The League against Cruel Sports accused Johnson and the pro-hunt lobby of using the attack on the Bromley baby to stoke anti-fox feeling. "It is important that people do not respond hysterically to this tragic incident. We find it deeply cynical that the pro-hunt lobby try to use incidences like this to argue in favour of their own case of legalising the barbaric practice of hunting wild animals with packs of dogs for fun," said its chief executive, Joe Duckworth.
Lady Hussein-Ece, a Lib Dem peer and special adviser to Nick Clegg on community cohesion, said people should be more tolerant of wildlife. "The attack was a tragedy but it was blown out of proportion. Last year there were 6,450 hospital admissions due to dog attacks but there was no call for a cull. Foxes are a nuisance but so are cats. We need to tackle the problem of domestic animals too," she said
Trevor Williams, director of the Fox Project charity, suggested the Bromley fox could have been affected by a chemical contained in grit spread in icy conditions.
"We've been admitting an inordinate number of rescued foxes that appear docile, unafraid and usually so disoriented they are unable to recognise food or water," he said. "It's only a theory, but it might explain this unusual incident – unusual when one considers how few fox attacks are reported."
He added: "Who would fund a cull? Local authorities? They don't have the money. National government? Also strapped for cash. Private householders? They are already legally entitled to call in private pest controllers to kill foxes. So nothing will change. There will not be a cull," he said.
Lee Moon of the Hunt Saboteurs Association said: "We are opposed to any cull of urban foxes and will do everything we can to stop it. Hunt saboteurs are experts at legally and peacefully intervening to save wildlife and the knowledge they have built up in 50 years of saving foxes in the countryside can easily be adapted to cities.
"We believe the hysteria surrounding urban foxes is largely generated by the pro-hunting community and that people must accept responsibility for interfering with the natural habitat of foxes and other wildlife and forcing them into urban areas in search of food."