Red fox

Common name:

  • Red fox

Scientific name:

  • Vulpes vulpes

Other common name/s:

  • European red fox, fox

Origin:

  • Europe

Animal status

This species is an established pest animal in the state of Victoria.

Read more about the invasive animal classification.

Populations

History of spread

European settlers introduced foxes into Australia for sporting purposes in the 1850s, with most releases being around Melbourne.

Within 20 years of their introduction, foxes had been declared as a pest species in Victoria. Within 100 years foxes had reached their current distribution on the mainland. Today foxes range over 75 per cent of the continent. It has also been suggested that the spread of foxes was strongly linked to the spread of rabbits.

Distribution in Victoria

Foxes are found in all mainland states and territories in Australia, and they have been reported to occur at low densities in Tasmania.

In Victoria the fox has established itself in all terrestrial environments from inner urban areas to alpine heaths, rainforests, coasts and the Mallee. Victorian habitats are highly favourable for the red fox.

Animal biology

Appearance

There are 21 different species of fox throughout the world, but only the red fox is found in Australia.

The red fox has big ears, a bushy tail and variable coat colour and pattern. They are usually reddish brown above with a whitish/grey chin chest and belly. They commonly have a distinct white tip on their tail, but sometimes it's black or dark red. Foxes have a narrow chest, long legs and have long, high-set, moveable claws which remain sharp and make foxes excellent climbers and burrowers.

Whilst fox size varies, males typically weigh 4 to 8 kilograms and females 4 to 6 kilograms. Foxes are sometimes referred to as the cat-like canid.

Behaviour

Foxes are chiefly nocturnal (night time) hunters, being most active in the evenings and early mornings (crepuscular). Fox family groups usually occupy well-defined home ranges. Foxes use scent markings with urine, scats (droppings) and secretions from anal glands, plus aggressive and non-aggressive confrontations and vocalisations to define the home ranges.

The red fox is solitary by nature. However foxes have been observed working in groups to take advantage of calving cows having difficulties with births. Additionally, foxes will travel beyond their home ranges to congregate where there is a seasonal abundance of food offered by lambing flocks or fledglings from migratory birds.

Foxes may travel up to 10 to 15km per night within their home range, revisiting sites of interest several times a night. By day, foxes usually rest in hides which may be a hollow log or tree, an enlarged rabbit burrow or dense undergrowth. A fox may use several resting sites within its home range and does not necessarily return to the same site each day.

Red fox social behaviour is limited to the rearing of cubs with a strong social structure during the breeding season. These social groups consist of a dominant adult male (dog) and a dominant adult female (vixen), together with several subordinate vixens which are usually related. Usually, only the dominant female produces a litter of cubs and the subordinate females help rear the cubs of the breeding vixen.

Red foxes cache (bury) surplus food for future consumption, which is a basic survival strategy. Caching is usually no more than simply placing the food in a small hole or depression and then lightly covering it with soil or debris.

During lean times when bad weather or injuries result in poor hunting success, the fox relies on these caches for survival. Adult foxes and cubs will defend cached food and will move food to another location if disturbed by other foxes.

Foxes also exhibit surplus killing behaviour defined as, killing prey at a rate beyond the immediate requirements of the predator.

Red foxes have long, sharp teeth, very quick reflexes and kill by multiple bites around the head and neck. Typically foxes inflict several deep facial bites and deep punctures around the neck. Birds such as poultry may only have the head and neck eaten, large feathers are chewed off rather than plucked out. Relatively large prey such as lambs typically have their tail, ears and tongues eaten and often the chest cavity is opened to eat internal organs. If the skin around the neck is cut back many small holes may be evident as a result of fox kill. Lambs and calves sometimes have their tongues eaten by foxes and sheep or cows can have teats or vulvas chewed off.

Diet

Foxes are highly adaptable, opportunistic omnivores eating meat, insects and plant materials.

Where present, rabbits make up a large part of fox diet. Other common food items include:

  • carrion (domestic livestock and native fauna)
  • house mice
  • insects
  • reptiles and amphibians
  • birds
  • grain
  • vegetable matter (including crops)
  • fruit crops such as grapes, apples and blackberries.

Primary predation by foxes on domestic livestock is common and those susceptible to fox predation include:

  • poultry
  • new born lambs
  • goat kids
  • deer fawns
  • domestic emu and ostrich chicks.

There have also been isolated instances predation of calves from difficult birthing.

A large portion of the fox's diet can consist of introduced and native animals. Foxes mostly prey upon animals that weigh between 35 to 5500 grams (sometimes referred to as critical-weight-range species) and ground-nesting birds — many of which are endangered or vulnerable.

Preferred habitat

Fox populations are established in urban, suburban, agricultural and natural environments throughout Victoria. Foxes inhabit many urban areas, especially where there is cover provided by parklands and reserves and food is easy to find. Densities of foxes residing in cities (3 to 16 per sq km) can be considerably higher than densities observed in farmland in central Victoria (4 per sq km) due to the abundance of resources in these environments.

Outside urban areas, the fox is probably most abundant in fragmented agricultural landscapes that provide a range of habitats, food and cover. Habitat suitability is usually determined by the densities of prey animals within an area.

Predators

Red foxes have few natural predators in Australia, with most mortality occurring because of human intervention or drought. Fox cubs are vulnerable to birds of prey and dogs. There is some evidence that local populations can be suppressed by predation from dingoes.

Diseases and parasites

Foxes are susceptible to the same diseases as dogs which are transmissible between these animals. Mange and distemper are thought to be important causes of mortality in wild fox populations, however little is known about their role in regulating Australian fox populations.

The fox is a carrier of rabies (where present) and could be a major vector for the spread of the disease if introduced to Australia.

Reproduction

Foxes exhibit both monogamy and polygamy. The red fox is not completely monogamous as polygamy occurs through males roaming in search of receptive females, males mating with more than one female in the same range, and males monopolising the ranges of two vixens.

Vixens mate once a year and will accept males over a three-day period and are stimulated to breed by changing day length and food availability. Male foxes are infertile from September to March due to the absence of sperm in the testes during this period. Within Australian fox populations, mating occurs over a 3 to 7 week period from mid-June to the end of July.

Fox litter size varies from 3 to 5 cubs. Pregnancy lasts for 51 to 53 days and cubs are born in dens early August to late September.

The cub's eyes begin to open after 8 to 14 days.

Regurgitated meat is consumed at around 3 weeks and partly digested whole food items are consumed around 4 weeks of age. Vixens cease lactating and wean cubs at 5 to 8 weeks.

Cubs emerge from the den at around 6 weeks of age and by 8 to 10 weeks the cubs abandon the den and live on the surface.

At 3 months of age they hunt for small animals and gradually gain independence by January, February.

Although they may stay in family groups, juvenile foxes become completely independent by March.

Dispersal from the natal area can occur from March onwards when juvenile foxes are 6 to 9 months old.

Young foxes are sexually mature by 9 to 10 months with 85 per cent of young females breeding in the first year.

Dispersal

Young foxes disperse from their family unit at the end of summer and beginning of autumn which results in a large floating population of young foxes looking for a more permanent place to live. Since the mortality of adult foxes is considerably high (50 to 60 per cent), there is a rapid and considerable change in territory occupancy from one year to another.

Dispersal of young foxes is an instinctive behaviour and occurs in all populations of foxes over varying distances. Dispersal distances are usually shorter where resources are abundant and greater where resources are scarce.

Males are more likely to leave the parent's territory than females and to travel greater distances; with males moving on average about 68km, and females about 14km. It is believed that the dog fox acts more aggressively towards his male offspring, eventually chasing them off his territory. In many instances the young female foxes do not move very far into new territory and some even remain in the parent's territory helping them to raise the next litter.

Impact

Impact on ecosystems and waterways

In Australia, the impact of the red fox combined with habitat degradation is the most likely cause of 'at risk' native animal declines.

The environmental costs associated with foxes are considerably greater than their agricultural impact and consequently, any large-scale reduction in fox densities could generate significant environmental benefits.

Fox predation has been listed as a key threatening process under the Australian Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. A key threatening process is that which threatens, or may threaten, the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological communities.

Foxes are considered a threat to 14 species of birds, 48 mammals, 12 reptiles and two amphibians. Listed as critically endangered are the:

  • orange-bellied parrot
  • spotted quail-thrush (from Mt Lofty Ranges)
  • herald petrel
  • Gilbert's potoroo
  • western swamp tortoise.

Foxes are thought to have played a major part in the demise and extinction of many ground-dwelling native species in the last 130 years.

Almost any animal up to 5.5 kilograms in weight is at risk from foxes. A single fox is estimated to eat about 400 grams of food each night. Over a year, this equates to around 150 kilograms of food. As foxes may kill many animals in a night, yet only consume a small amount of each, this could amount to thousands of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects killed each year by a single fox.

The scats of foxes contain the remnants of fruit and berries from native and introduced species. Introduced plant species found in fox scats include:

  • boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum)
  • sweet briar (Rubus rubiginosa)
  • blackberry (Rubus frutiscosis).

Foxes are presumed to be legitimate dispersers of seeds for they consume and defecate viable seeds. A seed takes 4 to 48 hours to pass through a fox's digestive system, they can be distributed over wide distances. It is also likely that seeds are dispersed attached to fox fur.

Economic impact

The economic impact of foxes in Australia has been estimated at around $227.5 million per annum. This includes: $17.5 million in sheep production losses $190 million in environmental impacts $16 million in management costs $4 million in research costs. Agricultural impact was estimated by assuming a 2 per cent predation loss from the value of 35 million lambs marked per year at a cost of $25 per head. In 2009, lost production due to lamb predation alone was estimated at approximately $2 million dollars for Victoria and Tasmania. These production losses are rather conservative in today's environment where lamb retail prices are higher. Primary fox predation may result in 4 to 30 per cent of lamb loss but their impact on agricultural production remains unquantified. In south-eastern Australia it is estimated that a 0.8 to 5.3 per cent lamb loss is due to fox predation. In the more arid areas of western NSW, up to 30 per cent of lambs are taken by foxes.

Total economic impact must also take into account the loss of potential genetic gain, the redirection of resources away from farm activities to control effort and reduced land values.

If rabies were to enter Australia the impacts would be devastating for native animals and domestic livestock. Rabies mostly affects members of the dog family, but can also be passed on to humans, livestock and native animals and foxes are known to be a major vector of the rabies in many parts of the world.

Impact on social value and health

Foxes cause significant distress and hardship when they kill livestock such as poultry and lambs. Foxes also carry diseases that are transmissible to domestic dogs and humans such as:

  • sarcoptic mange
  • hydatids
  • leptospirosis.

Urban foxes are a nuisance pest with behaviour including:

  • harassing domestic animals
  • eating pet food
  • raiding rubbish bins
  • defecating or digging in gardens
  • chewing infrastructure such as garden hoses and irrigation systems.

Foxes may also prey on native and domesticated animals including:

  • poultry
  • rabbits
  • guinea pigs
  • aviary birds.

They can spread parasites and diseases such as mange and distemper to domestic animals and pets.

Management

Recommended control measures include:

  • baiting
  • harbour management where applicable
  • fumigation
  • shooting
  • exclusion fencing
  • animal husbandry
  • property hygiene.

The department recommends integrated pest management using all available control measures implemented in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.

References

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Page last updated: 31 Jul 2020