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The Foxes Den / Foxes Earth

(1) The foxes den - a general overview

Outside the breeding season, red foxes spend much of their time above ground, often lying up during the day in dense vegetation, under tree roots and in other places that offer shelter and concealment; or when they do not face disturbance, cheekily sunning themselves out in the open.

Even during the breeding season, vixens can sometimes be seen above ground during the day, whilst their cubs remain relatively safely underground nearby
Even during the breeding season, vixens can sometimes be seen above ground during the day, whilst their cubs remain relatively safely underground nearby

Harsh weather during any season might, however, drive them underground for a while, but generally, use of dens - or earths, as they are sometimes known - is a feature of late-winter through to early summer when a secure place sheltered from the elements is required for the vixen to give birth to her cubs and for them to be raised until they reach an age when they have a reasonable chance of survival above ground. Even during this period, though, when the cubs no longer depend on the vixen's body heat to keep them warm, she will often stay above ground somewhere nearby during the day.

Vixens make their breeding dens in a wide variety of places and often ensure that a number of entrances / exits are present as alternative means of escape from predators or other sources of disturbance. When living in the suburbs, space beneath garden sheds is a favourite location, whilst in the countryside, underground breeding dens in hedgerows, woodland, sloping open ground, or at woodland edges, for example, may be excavated by the fox in preparation for the birth of the cubs, although many foxes commandeer and enlarge part of a rabbit warren or take over a section of a badgers' sett.

But unlike badgers, animals that quite sensibly excavate sleeping chambers within their setts and furnish them with copious amounts of bedding, foxes do not bother and instead lie directly on the cold, damp earth, which all-in-all doesn't seem to be much of a survival plan when it is considered that newly born cubs are easily chilled, sometimes fatally, by night-time temperatures.

And again to some extent unlike badgers, when vixens are spooked and sense significant danger, they may well up-sticks altogether and move the cubs to another nearby den within their home range, whereas badgers if disturbed may be far more tolerant and simply move to a different part of their sett.

Dens may be re-used annually by the same vixen particularly, it is assumed, when the den has previously been used to successfully rear cubs, whilst vixens will also inherit dens from previous generations.

(2) What is the difference between a foxes' den, a badgers' sett and a rabbit burrow?

That's certainly a good question that can be difficult to answer with certainty, but here are a number of guidelines.

Den entrances excavated by foxes tend to be fairly narrow, taller than they are wide - like a fox - and sometimes surprisingly small for such a relatively large animal although typically around 8 inches across. Relatively large spoil heaps might be present although foxes are far less capable diggers than badgers.

Entrances to rabbit warrens often feature nearby scatterings of rabbit droppings, the entrances are typically fairly round in shape and tend to be relatively small, as befits the size of the animal - around 4 to 6 inches across, although some rabbit holes are larger at the entrance but can be seen to quickly taper down in size.

The main entrance to a foxes' den - it has the typical characteristics of the entrance to a badgers' sett, and probably originally was, which illustrates how difficult it can be to identify which animal species is in occupation
The main entrance to a foxes' den - it has the typical characteristics of the entrance to a badgers' sett, and probably originally was, which illustrates how difficult it can be to identify which animal species is in occupation

Badger sett entrances are usually relatively large, at least 10-12 inches across, 8 inches high and often much more after maybe centuries of use, and are typically oval in shape, like a capital 'D' with the flat side at the base, reflecting the shape of the badger. Many setts feature a huge number of entrances, and some will often have large adjacent spoil heaps of relatively fresh earth accumulated as a result of badger excavations. Furthermore, there will usually be a furrow down the centre of the spoil heaps, formed as Brock backed out of the sett, and there will probably also be traces of old bedding material brought out and new material taken in.

Perhaps the most reliable method of identifying whether a fox is in occupation, though, is to look for fox field signs such as fox paw prints in soft ground; fox faeces typically left close to potential breeding dens in mid to late-winter by the vixen or dog fox; and after the cubs have started to come above ground, far smaller cub faeces and scattered fox prey remains that might include feathers, birds' wings, and bits of fur - only rarely do badgers leave food item remains above ground.

And for those with even slightly sensitive noses, fox aroma can sometimes be quite pungent and readily detectable.

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