Red fox

Common name: Red Fox

Scientific name: Vulpes vulpes

Other common name/s: European red fox, fox

Origin: Europe

Animal status

Foxes are an established pest animal in the state of Victoria.

Read more about the invasive animal classification.

Red fox standing by treePopulations

History of spread

In 1855 foxes were introduced into Australia for sporting purposes, with most releases being around Melbourne.

By the 1870s, only 20 years after 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 occur over 75 per cent of Australia. It has been suggested that the initial 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 have been reported to occur at low densities in Tasmania.

In Victoria, foxes have established populations in all terrestrial environments including urban areas, alpine heaths, rainforests, coasts and the Mallee. Victorian habitats are highly favourable for the red fox.

Population density in Victoria

Fox population densities are often higher in urban areas than rural areas due to the abundance of food, water and shelter in these environments. In Melbourne, there are as many as 16 foxes per km2  ,while in temperate agricultural areas their densities are estimated to be 4-8 per km2.

Fox in the wildAnimal biology

Appearance

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

Red foxes have 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 may be 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 the 'cat-like canid'.

Fox on a hill at nightBehaviour

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

Red foxes are solitary by nature. However they 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 usually involves 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, foxes rely 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 will 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.

Fox holding small animal caught in mouth, standing in front of fenceDiet

Foxes are highly adaptable, opportunistic omnivores that eat 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 of the 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.

2 red foxes in long grassPreferred 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.

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.

Lone red fox standing in long grassReproduction

Foxes exhibit both monogamy and polygamy. 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 or 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 resulting 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.

2 red foxes on mound of dirtImpact

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.

Red fox jumping through a wire fenceEconomic 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. 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

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.

Red fox with prey in a back gardenUrban 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.

Image credits

Figure 1: © Wayne Hillier

Figure 2: © Jason Wishart

Figure 4: © Daniel Schembri

Figure 5: © Bec Ballard

Figure 6: © Jason Wishart

Figure 8: © Dion Thompson

Figure 9: © Robyn Williams

References

  • Cavallini, P. 1996. Variation in the social system of the red fox. Ethology, Ecology and Evolution 8, 323-342.
  • Coman, B.J 1973, The Diet of Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in Victoria, viewed 9th November 2009 at URL: http://www.publish.csiro.au/paper/ZO9730391.htm
  • Bustamante, R.O., Simonetti, J.A. and Mella, J.E. (1992) Are foxes legitimate and efficient seed dispersers – a field test. ACTA Oecologica – International Journal of Ecology, 13: (2) 203-208
  • DEWHA. 2008a. Background document for the threat abatement plan for predation by the European red fox. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), Canberra.
  • DEWHA 2008b. Threat abatement plan for predation by the European red fox, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), Canberra.
  • European red fox PestSmart Fact Sheet accessed on 10th February 2012
  • Gong W., Sinden J., Braysher M. and Jones R. 2009 The economic impacts of vertebrate pests in Australia. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre
  • Graae, B.J., Pagh, S. and Bruun, H.H. (2004) An experimental evaluation of the Arctic fox (Alopex Lagopus) as a seed disperser. Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research, 36: (4) 468-473)
  • Greentree, C., Saunders, G., McLeod, L. and Hone, L. (2000). Lamb predation and fox control in southeastern Australia. Journal of Applied Ecology 37, 935-943
  • Henry, D.J. 1996. Red Fox; The Catlike Canine. Smithsonian Institute Press, Washinton,D.C., London
  • Kinnear, J R, Sumner N.R., Onus, M.L., The red fox in Australia—an exotic predator turned biocontrol agent, Biological Conservation 108 (2002) 335–359
  • Lloyd, H.G. (1980). Habitat requirements of the Red Fox. In The Red Fox, ed E.Zimen. Biogeographica, Vol 18, p 7. Dr W. Junk B.V. publishers, the Hague-Boston-London.
  • Lugton, I.W. (1993) Fox predation on lambs. In 'Australian Sheep veterinary Society ' Australian Veterinary Association, Gold coast, pp 17-26
  • Macdonald, D. W. (1976). Food caching by red foxes and some other carnivores. Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie 42, 170-185.
  • Macdonald, D.W. (1979) 'Helpers' in fox society. Nature 282: 69–71. In managing vertebrate pests foxes
  • McIlroy, J.C., Saunders, G.R., and Hinds, L. 2001. The reproductive performance of female red foxes, Vulpes vulpes, in central-western New South Wales during and after a drought. Canadian Journal of Zoology 79, 545-553
  • McIntosh, D.L. (1963a) Reproduction and growth of the fox in the Canberra district.CSIRO Wildlife Research 8: 132–141.
  • McLeod, R. (2004) Counting the Cost: Impact of Invasive Animals in Australia 2004. Cooperative Research Centre for Pest Animal Control. Canberra
  • Reynolds, J. C. 2000 Fox Control in the Countryside. The Game Conservancy Trust,
  • Rolls, E. (1969). They All Ran Wild. The Story of Pests on the Land in Australia. Angus & Robertson : Sydney.
  • Saunders, G., Coman, B., Kinnear, J. and Braysher, M. 1995. Managing Vertebrate Pests: Foxes. Bureau of Resource Sciences, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
  • Saunders, G., Kay, B. and McLeod, L. 1999. Caching of baits by foxes (Vulpes vulpes) on agricultural lands. Wildlife Research 26(3): 335-340.
  • Short, J., Kinnear, J. E. And Robley, A. (2002). Surplus killing by introduced predators in Australia—evidence for ineffective anti-predator adaptations in native prey species? Biological Conservation 103 283-301
  • Tembrock, G. (1963). Acoustic behaviour of mammals, In R.G. Busnel, ed., Acoustic behaviour of mammals. Amsterdam: Elsevier
  • Saunders, Glen R., Matthew N. Gentle, and Christopher R. Dickman. (2010) “The impacts and management of foxes Vulpes vulpes in Australia.” Mammal Review 40.3 : 181-211.
  • Carter, Andrew, Gary W. Luck, and Simon P. McDonald. (2012) "Ecology of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) in an agricultural landscape. 2. Home range and movements." Australian Mammalogy 34.2 : 175-187.
  • Marks, C.A. & Bloomfield, T. E. (1996) Distribution and density estimates for urban Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in Melbourne: implications for rabies control.  Wildlife Research 26, 763-75.
  • Coman, B.J., Robinson, J. & Beaumont, C. (1991) Home range, dispersal and density of foxes (Vulpes vulpes L.) in central Victoria. Australian Wildlife Research18, 215-24.
  • Saunders, G. and McLeod, L. (2007) Improving fox management strategies in Australia. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.
  • Saunders, G., Coman, B., Kinnear, J. and Braysher, M. (1995) Managing Vertebrate Pests: Foxes. Bureau of Resource Sciences.
Page last updated: 24 Mar 2021