The Red Fox is one of the most adaptable and successful of all predatory mammals with a distribution covering much of the world. In Britain foxes have become a familiar sight in some major cities since the end of the Second World War. Suburban gardens, parks and railway embankments all provide ideal habitat (try looking out of a train window on a sunny day if you are travelling on a London suburban route) and there is no shortage of easy food to be obtained by scavenging. They have exceptional agility and they are able to scale most garden fences with ease.
Although the maximum potential life span may reach double figures (and some captive animals are known to have lived this long) few wild foxes will live for more than four or five years and the majority will die within the first year of life.
In London and Bristol, where significant population studies have been performed (*see below), the average life expectancy is not much more than fourteen or fifteen months. Urban populations suffer heavy casualties on the roads, with up to half of all foxes meeting an untimely end following collisions with cars. Other individuals may be injured during minor accidents and many foxes do appear to limp in a pronounced fashion, although this is often in response to a minor leg wound and the emphasis of the limp may change from day to day! If a limb is broken a fox will lie up out of sight until the wound has healed and it is strong enough to reclaim its position in the social hierarchy.
Another major killer is sarcoptic mange, in which the most obvious symptom in affected individuals is fur loss. Whole family groups may be wiped out by this extremely unpleasant mite-borne disease. The foxes may become totally bald in severe cases and these animals are distressing to observe as they may take a long time to die. Some milder cases may recover spontaneously.
Foxes do moult naturally during the summer months and this may lead the observer to erroneously believe that a healthy animal might have been infected with mange. During the autumn the thick winter coat will grow and moulted foxes will then achieve their physical peak prior to mating. All of the illustrations above show foxes in this condition and the degree of insulation offered is seen in the photograph of the vixen in the snow – none of the snowflakes have melted.
The breeding strategy of this species is intriguing as it is able to absorb this high mortality under all but the most extreme circumstances (i.e. a major and endemic outbreak of sarcoptic mange or persistent attempts at eradication by humans) without significant overall loss in population.
The breeding season begins towards the end of each year. Courtship is an animated and noisy process and the animals become somewhat oblivious to all other events as the act of mating approaches. Screaming vixens sometimes cause consternation as the cries (which may sound uncannily human) are loud, piercing and often uttered at the dead of night!
During the breeding season adults normally live in pairs or in small family groups of between two and six. Most groups of more than two will contain one dominant dogfox and vixen and the remainder of the group consists of either sibling animals or offspring of lower social status. If more than one vixen conceives, only the dominant female will usually give birth, with other pregnant females spontaneously aborting their cubs in the majority of cases. This behaviour is presumably controlled by hormonal signals produced by the dominant vixen which then somehow suppress reproduction in the subordinates. However, if the dominant vixen fails to survive until the time when she is due to deliver her cubs, one of these subordinate females may then go on to produce a live litter. The reproductive strategy is therefore one of self-limitation.
Despite the sophistication of the reproductive process most female foxes will only live long enough to produce a single litter when they are about ten months old.
Even the litter size seems to be controllable, with larger numbers of cubs being produced when the population density is low and smaller numbers when it is high. The cubs will stay with the family group until August or September when they usually begin to migrate to new territories. This is another period of high mortality as the inexperienced cubs will be exposed to many sources of danger at this time.
Foxes have variable temperaments and some individual animals may actually become very trusting and tame in the company of humans. Others will remain entirely wild and will avoid any human contact.
There are 21 species of fox worldwide. The number 21 is significant because in the Tarot it is The World. It is a card that reflects a new world opening up, reflecting the world changing or shapeshifting itself into new patterns that will be beneficial. Also 2 + 1 = 3, the number of the Goddess and foxes powers are feminine magick of shapeshifting as well as camouflage and invisibility. Foxes live in the ‘between times’ of dawn and dusk, on the edges of woods and open ground; the ‘border lands’. Therefore, it is seen as a guide to the Otherworld. The fox is a survivor and great hunter using both stamina and grace. Extremely good instinct and intuition as well as patience.