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Fox cubs playing and 'play' fighting - follow the fortunes of a fox family at their den deep in the woods

Here, using videos produced using a motion-triggered trail camera, we can view fox cubs playing and 'play' fighting, and follow the comings and goings of the red fox family throughout a late-April, 2021 night.

This foxes' den was in broad-leaved woodland on the edge of a plateau, measuring perhaps 100 x 50 metres, from which the land falls away very steeply on three sides. Badger tunnels and rabbit burrows were present around much of the edge of the plateau and to a small extent on the plateau itself. Rabbits were present and so were a pair of badgers in a part of the sett 75 metres from the foxes' den - rabbits were frequently seen close to the den, but never badgers.

Snow and frost decorated the plateau a mere two weeks before the cubs were first seen above ground
Snow and frost decorated the plateau a mere two weeks before the cubs were first seen above ground

The foxes den had at least two entrances / exits. Occupation was first noticed on 13th April, 2021, and a watch was then kept using a trail camera positioned overlooking what was perceived to be the den's main entrance. The other known entrance a little to the right, downhill, was not visible from the camera position and to avoid undue disturbance, no attempt was made to either place a second camera close to the second entrance or temporarily relocate the first camera.

Fox activity was relatively low-key before the night of 27th / 28th April, with just a few nightly visits to the den by the vixen. Food was seen to be brought back and taken underground and there was a strong suspicion that on more than one occasion a cub, possibly lifeless, was carried underground, and at other times similarly carried away from the den, although the pictures aren't clear enough to fully rule out the possibility that in some instances what was being carried was a large prey item.

Cubs (two) were first seen at the den entrance on 25th April, but did not emerge, and were again suspected at the entrance on the 26th, but again did not emerge. They may well, of course, have emerged from the other den entrance, out of sight of the camera.

Four cubs did, however, emerge from this entrance during the night of 27th / 28th April, a cool night that started with drizzle that stopped shortly after midnight.

These videos provide a complete record of activity throughout that night as the cubs explored their surroundings and engaged in 'play' fighting, all under the watchful eye of the vixen, a caring parent that took great care to not let them stray too far. Compared to earlier (and later) nights there was a lot of activity, but to put that into context, throughout the night foxes were only visible for just over 19 minutes.

The vixen and cubs were also briefly seen in the early morning of 29th April and again in the evening of 30th April. Videos are included here that show these appearances.

At no time on any of these occasions was a second adult fox seen - only the vixen seemed to be looking after the cubs and bringing in food.

(1) Early appearances - 21.39 - 00.17 hrs (2 minutes 35 seconds video)

The vixen first appeared at 21.39 hours, an hour after sunset, amidst steady drizzle, and made straight off before re-appearing a mere 6 minutes later.

She immediately headed off again only to re-appear at 21.52 hrs, when she was eventually briefly joined by two cubs. She again quickly departed and was not seen again until 00.09 hrs when food was brought back and taken underground.

She re-emerged at 00.17 hrs and again went off to hunt.

(2) The vixen carried in a cub and later picked one up by the scruff of the neck - 04.08 - 04.51 hrs (2 minutes 16 seconds video)

The vixen was next seen almost 4 hours later, carrying by the hind quarters what appeared to be a lifeless cub that was taken straight underground.

The drizzle had by then stopped and she re-appeared a couple of minutes later in company with a single cub that seemed, by paying close attention to her throat, to be trying to encourage her to regurgitate food before the cub briefly, unsuccessfully attempted to suckle.

Tired of the cub's antics, she picked it up by the scruff of the neck and carried it underground before, at 04.12 hrs, again going off to hunt. Food brought back at 04.50 hrs was taken underground, before two cubs briefly appeared at the den entrance.

(3) Three cubs explored and 'play' fought - 04.57 - 05.01 hrs (2 minutes 54 seconds video)

With the drizzle abated, and tummies seemingly well-fed, three of the cubs emerged at 04.57 hrs and explored the area around the den entrance before engaging in a little gentle 'play' fighting. Taken collectively as a single entity, their movements magically appeared almost serpentine.

At 05.01 hrs in the half light of the morning - sunrise was at 05.33 hrs - the vixen re-appeared in the den entrance and surveyed the scene - she presumably had been taking a short break underground.

(4) Three cubs continued to play and explore - 05.01 - 05.04 hrs (2 minutes 16 seconds video)

The three cubs continued to play and explore, whilst the vixen sat down to watch over her youngsters until one wandered a little too far for her liking. She started to pick it up but was distracted by another cub wandering in the opposite direction, which she gripped and ushered towards the den. Keeping a motherly eye on these three rascals was certainly proving to be a challenge!

Quite a scuffle broke out between two of the cubs, which the vixen was happy to let continue, and then to add to her task, a fourth cub appeared in the den entrance.

(5) The fourth cub emerged - 05.03 - 05.11 hrs (4 minutes 50 seconds video)

The fourth cub emerged for the first time, and play and exploration continued whilst all the while the vixen kept a close watch on proceedings.

Two of the cubs had prominent white tail tips, mirroring that of the vixen, whilst two cubs did not.

(6) The cubs continued to play and explore, and the vixen eventually carried a cub back to the den - 05.11 - 05.18 hrs (4 minutes 12 seconds video)

It was close to sunrise and the vixen went underground, hoping, I imagine, that the cubs would follow. One had already disappeared from sight and soon a second did the same. The two cubs that remained above ground, though, continued to 'play' fight, now very energetically.

The vixen appeared to be losing control as the third cub re-appeared. It was time for her to stamp her authority on the youngsters, and that she did by unceremoniously picking up a wanderer by the scruff of the neck and carrying it back to the den entrance, and not only that, but carrying it underground.

Definitely looking for trouble, the cub briefly reappeared before, maybe remembering its scolding, thinking better of it.

Two cubs continued to wrestle until a sharp foxy word from the vixen persuaded them to go underground. She stayed around the entrance to deter further escape attempts, before, satisfied that the cubs would finally do what they were told, wandering off to the right, downhill, maybe to enter the den at its second entrance or maybe to take a complete break from cub-minding.

No foxes were seen again that night.

Sequel - activity at the den in the early morning of the 29th April and in the evening of the 30th April

(7) 29th April - a cub was brought back in - 03.39 hrs (10 seconds video)

The vixen was first seen as she left the den at 23.23 hrs - there was no sign of the cubs at that time. And then, as shown in the video below, she returned at 03.39 hrs carrying in her jaws what appeared to be a possibly lifeless cub.

(8) 29th April - the vixen bounds from the den entrance - 03.40 - 03.44 hrs (2 minutes 53 seconds video)

One minute after carrying the cub - if that's what it was - into the den, the vixen positively bounded from the den entrance before turning back to check that all was well - this was a typical fox emergence: first there was no sign of activity and then a split second later the vixen was present above ground, a distance from the entrance.

Three cubs immediately emerged, initially somewhat hesitantly, and explored their surroundings before a few minutes later going back underground. The whereabouts of the fourth cub was unknown.

Neither cubs nor vixen were seen again that night.

(9) 30th April - the vixen left the den carrying a possibly lifeless cub in her jaws - 22.29 hrs (10 seconds video)

The vixen was first seen at 22.29 hrs as she left the den carrying a possibly lifeless cub in her jaws.

(10) 30th April - the nearby presence of a 'rogue' dog fox was maybe, and quite rightly, suspected by the vixen - 22.35 - 22.36 hrs, and 22.59 - 23.01 hrs (59 seconds video)

Shortly after the vixen departed at 22.29 hrs, a single cub hesitantly explored its surroundings, seemingly wandering like a lost soul, maybe wondering what had happened to its siblings. (The fate of the cub carried away by the vixen was unknown as was the whereabouts of the other two cubs).

(Later events suggested that the vixen was aware that a 'rogue' dog fox was on the prowl and was possibly attempting to protect her cubs by moving them away. Certainly things were soon to get far worse for this fox family, as outlined here - Infanticide in foxes).

Find out lots more about foxes

Introduction and description - an introduction to the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
The foxes den / foxes earth - all about foxes' dens, and how to tell a foxes' den from a badgers' sett and rabbit burrow
Fox cub behaviour - a look in detail at the antics of fox cubs at the den
Fox cubs playing and 'play' fighting - a series of videos that include fox cubs playing and 'play' fighting at a den deep in the woods
Fox infanticide - an exploration of fox infanticide, the phenomenon of adult foxes killing fox cubs
Fox field signs, tracks and trails - a review of the signs that tell that a fox has passed by
Fox numbers - an examination of fox numbers nationally and more specifically in the New Forest
Fox watching - advice about watching country foxes without causing disturbance

References:
Collins Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Europe: David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett
Town fox, Country fox: Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald
Animals Tracks, Trails and Signs: RW Brown, MJ Lawrence, J Pope
Collins Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs: Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom
Fauna Britannica: Stefan Buczacki
Running with the Fox: David Macdonald
Fox: Martin Wallen
Wild Fox: Roger Burrows
The Diary of Colonel Peter Hawker
Thirty-five Years in the New Forest: Gerald Lascelles
BBC Wildlife on-line edition
The Fox Website
Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust
Wildlife online - fox infanticide


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Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley