ROBERT E FULLER is one of the country’s leading wildlife artists. He regularly travels the globe collecting reference material for his paintings. In this month’s column, Robert, who lives in Thixendale, near Malton, focuses on a wild carnivore becoming a ‘townie’

THERE are more than 20 species of fox in the world, but our fox, the red fox is the most widespread and familiar.

It is the largest and most adaptable of all the species and has the widest geographical distribution of any wild carnivore.

Red foxes are found almost throughout the northern hemisphere, as well as in Australia, where they were released by homesick ex-pats keen to replicate the traditions of rural England.

It is strange to think that the red fox is equally at home in the deserts of the Middle East or the wilds of the Arctic tundra as in our lush tapestry of fields, woods and meadows.

Recently some have turned ‘townie’, populating towns and cities with vigour.

Foxes form part of the canine family. Appearance is deceptive, they weigh much less than you would expect. Their fur makes up their bulk – a surprisingly small body, weighing around 6.5kg, lies beneath.

Like our domestic dogs, foxes make a variety of noises. And they are most vocal at this time of year.

A familiar fox cry is the ‘wow wow wow’ call heard most frequently in the dead of night between December and February. These are long distance contact calls and can ricochet back and forth between two or more foxes.

The vixen’s high-pitched eerie and yelping scream or wail marks the beginning of the breeding season.

It is thought that this call is to attract dog foxes to compete for her. She is often trailed for weeks by a courting male. He will mark his territory with a pungent urine spray warning others to keep out of his patch and away from his vixen.

The dog makes several cautious approaches to the vixen. His postures reveal an uneasy blend of playfulness and aggression and he often suffers frequent and noisy rebuffs until they mate during her two or three days of receptivity, usually in January.

After about 52 days of gestation, four to five cubs are born in March or April.

In most parts of the UK, foxes are essentially nocturnal spending much of the day safely hidden away in a burrow, known as an earth or den.

Their love of sunbathing will sometimes tempt them out during the day and they can be spotted sunning themselves not far from the safety of thick cover.

Their secretive ways and nocturnal habits make them tremendously difficult to study. One slight whiff of human scent or click of a camera and they’re off! However, their urban counterparts are less wary.

Foxes have made themselves very unpopular with some because of their tendency to kill domestic fowl and even livestock. They often kill more than they can eat and can cause devastation to a pen.

They are among the few mammals to do this – mink and man are others. It is argued that this taste for carnage is down to artificial congregations of enclosed prey and unpredictable food supply.

It tends to cache some of its prey underground, to be retrieved at a later date, but will often leave many corpses behind which seems to be an unnecessary waste.

The battle between man and fox has waged for hundreds of years. Historically considered as vermin and a health hazard, it has nevertheless been appreciated for its fur and as quarry.

Recently the fox entered the political arena as the whole country was drawn into the debate over the hunting ban and how to control its numbers.

Several tens of thousands are killed every year by shooting, trapping and road casualties. In addition, the natural mortality of cubs is high. In spite of all this, the fox population remains stable, such is their propensity for life. And foxes are here to stay whether you love them or loathe them.