Skip to main content

Habitat Ecology Information

What’s Lurking In Your Backyard? – #4 European Red Fox

This series looks at the variety of fauna that may be found in the suburban backyard or local reserve and the diversity may be surprising to some people. The obvious fauna are the vast array of birds that are readily seen by day and some by night, but there are numerous species that are nocturnal. Some of these nocturnal species people are familiar with as they tramp across the roof at night with what sounds like hobnail boots on, or they hear fighting in the backyard over food and territory. Others are cryptic and may only be seen infrequently when they enter the house for warmth and shelter. Each week I will highlight a different species that may be found in and around Melbourne’s backyards, parks and reserves, some may be familiar others less so.

#4 European Red Fox
(Vulpes vulpes)

The European Red Fox (from here on referred to as the Red Fox) was deliberately introduced to Australia for recreational hunting. Depending on the literature it arrived between 1855 and the 1870’s and it wasn’t long before it became established and started to spread throughout Australia. It rapidly reached WA and Queensland. It now occurs most habitat types with the exception of the Tropical North and in all States and Territories.

The Red Fox as the name suggests has a red fur with a white underbelly. The fur will darken with age with black streaks. The Red Fox is about twice the size of the average cat and weighs up to 6kgs. It has a long muzzle and pointed ears but the most prominent feature is the bushy tail (which was often seen on car aerials many years ago). Both the male and female fox become sexually mature at 1 year old and the breeding season in Victoria starts usually around July when mating begins. Later in the year the female with give birth to up to 10 but usually around 4 cubs. The female will wean the cubs and they will generally appear from the den around the end of November early December and start dispersing in January-February. This is the period that they are often more commonly seen.

For people in the urban area they will generally see the fox roaming the streets at night searching for food. Raiding of the chook sheds and aviaries is common and their activity in and around houses will often stir up the dogs resulting in them barking as foxes traverse the backyards. Fences don’t pose too much of an obstacle to them and they can quickly scale the backyard fence to escape any dog that chases them.

The fox is an opportunistic feeder with a wide range of foods being consumed. This includes native and farm animals, rodents, birds, reptiles and frogs a wide range of fruits and for those in the urban areas the cat or dog food left out at night. They will even scavenge the bins around urban areas at night. Fox densities are very much related to food availability with those in the urban areas of Melbourne being some of the highest in the world with up to 16/km2 whilst more arid areas are around 3/km2. One of the reasons for this high population is the lack of natural predators in Australia.

The Red Fox has been implicated in the decline and extinction of many of Australia’s faunal species and 34 endangered species are considered under threat from predation by foxes nationally. In all States and Territories it is a pest species. Within Victoria it has been a declared a pest species under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994 (CALP Act 1994). Federally the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation act 1999 (EPBC Act 1999) has listed Predation by the European Red Fox as a key threatening process.

The other threat posed by foxes is the spread of diseases. Although not in Australia yet the fox is likely to be a major vector in the spread of rabies whilst it is currently the vector for a wide range if diseases. These include mange, which can affect cats and dogs as well as native wildlife, canine distemper, parvovirus and a range of parasites. They are also a vector for the spread of a number of noxious weeds including blackberry.

There are a number of control methods for foxes available but professional pest controllers should carry out all control. Contact the Vertebrate Pest Management Association for help in fox control. Research into better control is ongoing and although this may reduce foxes it is unlikely that it will eliminate them from Australia.

For information on the European Red Fox and its impact on Australian Fauna follow the links below.
Department of Sustainability & Environment

© Habitat Ecology 2012