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Sunday 13 June 2010

How do you outfox new urban menace?

After a vicious fox attack on twin girls in the UK, Ruth Dudley Edwards is at a loss to know how the animals can be controlled

SOME people have the nerve to call me opinionated, but there are several issues about which I dither. This week, it's what to do about urban foxes, which are in the news because of the mauling of nine-month-old Lola and Isabella Koupparis in their upstairs London bedroom. It was a hot evening, the patio doors had been left open, and responding to cries, Pauline Koupparis went up to her twins and found them covered in blood. "I saw the fox," she said, "it just looked at me and it wasn't even scared of me."

Conspiracy-theorist bloggers think the fox is innocent, the babies are the victims of dogs or it's all a wicked plot by evil conservatives to have fox-hunting reintroduced. Their opponents are calling for shooting, poisoning and trapping on a grand scale.

I love almost all animals and once was sentimental. My first husband and I used to have a fantasy that we would become so rich that we could buy up strategically positioned land and ban hunts from crossing it. We never got rich, and over the years I changed my mind because I listened to country-folk telling me about what foxes did to lambs and chickens and got to know people who hunted and yet cared about animals and the environment in a way that shamed us sanctimonious city-dwellers.

I have a wealthy friend who moved to a fine house, bringing with her a fabulous and much-loved collection of exotic hens. It was so nice, she said, to see them scratching around on the terrace. Then one day there were no live hens, just bodies and heads strewn all around, and on the cctv film she and her husband watched one fox, as Robert put it, "sauntering" up the avenue and staging the massacre. It was because of that episode that when there was media coverage of a hencoop where a fox was pecked to death, I laughed.

Friends of foxes claim that foxes kill everything within reach because a) they are frightened by the birds' flapping and squawking or b) because they are atavistically programmed to kill with a view to burying food for eating later. Sure, but no such rationale makes the bereaved feel better when they see the horrors inflicted on their fowl or their lambs, or, as in the case of the Koupparis parents, their children.

I bit the intellectual bullet when I wrote a crime novel about the anti-hunting movement, read a great deal of hunting literature and reluctantly became a supporter -- even if nothing would persuade me to become a participant. As with bull-fighting (which I would do anything to avoid), what was fascinating was hunting's importance in the country imagination where it is forever man pitting his wits against Reynard the cunning Fox.

When, under the guise of kindness to animals, the British parliament wasted 700 hours on an anti-hunting bill which was designed by class warriors to annoy the gentry, I even marched in a Countryside Alliance protest. Urban types, it seems to me, have a brass nerve to tell the country how to conduct itself, and, besides, people of all classes are passionately devoted to hunting. What made me really mad was that the bill made the lot of foxes worse. Hunts produce a clean kill; shooting doesn't.

The fox business got personal when a brazen specimen moved into my small urban garden, dug several holes under the fence and bit through the cable from the water feature. Yes, it would disport itself in the sun looking furry and cute, but my heart was hard. And when I saw its body on the road outside my house I was pleased. So when I went to stay with my friends who have a wonderful garden in Co Clare, despite their moving and learned defences of fox behaviour, I was disinclined to coo along with them at the captivating antics of the fox family they feed and nurture.

In PR terms foxes have had a bad week, and there is much debate on what should be done. However, even though I long ago came down on the foxes-are-vermin side of the debate, I am now completely confused by the disputes over what should be done.

The London mayor, Boris Johnson, has told local government to get on with "pest control, because as romantic and cuddly as a fox is, it is also a pest". Urban foxes are rife in our two islands, but wise people assure us that foxes are too clever for traps, if you put down poison, it'll kill the birds and squirrels, even if you shoot one fox, two will take its place, if you deny them food, they might eat your kitten, but if you do feed them it will encourage more. So I haven't a clue what to do. Have you?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards