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Country Matters: From here to paternity: watch out for loved-up Mr Fox

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Mortality is high among young fox cubs

Mortality is high among young fox cubs

Mortality is high among young fox cubs

“Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” This snatch from the Song of Solomon has turned up as a prompt for books, plays and films. One famous drama is Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. A movie not many will remember, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, starred Edward G Robinson and child actor Margaret O’Brien in a US farm story from 1945 with the screenplay written by Dalton Trumbo .

But those little foxes out there now should be treated with respect. People should be wary of contact and resist hand-feeding them in their gardens — I knew two people who used to give chocolate to a fox on the hill of Howth!

Be cautious, as like many wild creatures, they carry infections which may be passed on. Foxes carry some unpleasant illnesses such as sarcoptic mange (doesn’t bear thinking about), the debilitating condition toxocariasis, and, more commonly, ringworm, a skin fungal infection found on walls and fox paths through gardens — I have been a victim of this.

Foxes can also bring about violent human behaviour. The renowned travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, while at a hunt ball in Naas in the post-World War II years, got into a kerfuffle with fox-hunting folk of the “Killing Kildares” and needed medical attention.

The former Irish Guards officer and Special Forces operative (he organised the capture of a German general on Crete) was driven to a doctor in Dublin by the then wife of filmmaker John Huston, with whom he later had a romantic fling all this from Artemis Cooper’s biography of the war hero, whose grandfather named Ambler was a west Cork builder who had a business in India where Fermor was born.

This year, some foxes appear to have begun their love entanglements earlier. February is usually ushered in with nocturnal activity of barking, growling and screams rending the night air. The barking is to warn off other foxes that may be encroaching on territory, but primarily those triple shouts are to beckon prospective partners.

The vixen’s response is to emit blood-curdling banshee wails and screams. It’s a jungle out there, particularly in streets and gardens where Vulpes vulpes has sniffed out the easier food sources. 

Foxes are not really sex savages. They are loyal in their unions and once young dogs have found mates they usually pair for life. Interloping bachelors usually get short shrift with bouts of posturing, barging and wrestling but, surprisingly, no biting. Mister Big never leaves his lady out of sight during her three-week oestrus period as she becomes fertile for just three days and he has to ensure his paternity.

A litter of four or five cubs is born March/April, the mother remaining with her blind and deaf offspring for three weeks and being brought food by her mate.

More than one “earth” or den will have been prepared and sometimes vixens will move and may be seen carrying cubs by the scruff of the neck.

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After four weeks cubs will venture out, but mortality is high — with 80pc dead within a year from the aforementioned infections and road kills.

Foxes are fearless, cunning and shrewd with an acute sense of smell to identify food sources. They will enter kitchens and farmers will tell of seeing them in the shadows waiting to snatch the placenta as cows calve so be wary.


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