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Fox family life

A fox cub awaits the return of a parent bearing food
A fox cub patiently awaits the return
of a parent bearing food

Foxes mate from December to February and announce the process with loud, far-carrying vocalisations typified by a barking ‘wow-wow-wow’ and an eerie, high-pitched ‘waaaaaaaa’.

Fox gestation period is around 52 days, births are usually in March or April, and the typical litter size is 4 or 5 cubs. The vixen’s body heat is needed by fox cubs for the first 2 to 3 weeks, and they first venture above ground, hesitantly initially, after 4 weeks. Fox cubs are weaned at around 6 weeks, but can take solid food a couple of weeks earlier.

Fox cub fur is brown at birth, and ears and nose are short. Red fur starts to develop shortly after first emergence from the den, and the nose and ears become more elongated as adult-like features are progressively assumed. Fox cub growth is rapid, and after around 6 months, the young of the year are largely indistinguishable from adult foxes.

Whilst sometimes willing to excavate or extend their own underground breeding dens, foxes often take the easy option and commandeer part of a heathland rabbit warren or, perhaps surprisingly, cohabit with badgers in a woodland sett – the badgers live at one end of the sett, the foxes at the other, with rabbits sometimes in-between acting as a ready-made larder.

The foxes and badgers will usually maintain a polite distance, but in the event of aggression, it’s likely that the badger will triumph. Both fox and badger, though, show the utmost respect for one another. For example, I’ve at dusk watched a fox emerge from one part of a badgers' sett, scent-mark around the entrances, and then go off to hunt. A short while later, a badger was seen to emerge from an adjacent entrance, diligently sniff the air, and then rapidly move its cubs, one at a time, picked up by the scruff of the neck, to another part of the sett.

When the fox cubs are very young, there’s often little above-ground evidence that the den is occupied. At that time, too, fox parents are likely to be particularly protective, and will readily move the family if disturbed – like the badger, the adults pick up small fox cubs one at a time, by the scruff of the neck, and carry them to safety.

As the breeding season progresses, though, and the fox cubs regularly venture alone above ground, finding active breeding dens is not too difficult. Trampled bracken, scattered fox cub droppings, rabbit’s legs, squirrel’s tails, bird remains, and even quite large skulls are all familiar signs that a fox family is in residence.

Fox watching, too, becomes considerably easier at this time as the adults spend progressively longer periods hunting on behalf of the increasingly demanding litter. How far foxes travel in the quest for food is open to speculation, but often fox cubs are left alone for hours at a time, suggesting that the hunt can be long.

Fox cubs at this time can seem very tame - I suppose they don’t know any better - for whilst they usually scurry underground when approached, providing that a reasonable distance is maintained, they'll often quickly reappear to investigate the source of disturbance.

Adult New Forest foxes, though, remain extremely wary throughout, but later in the breeding cycle appear reluctant to move the family – probably because by then the fox cubs are just too big to pick up, and can’t be trusted to follow in an orderly fashion.

Fox cubs at play
Fox cubs at play

Watching older fox cubs around a den is one of nature’s treats as they wrestle, play-fight, groom themselves and each other, pounce on bracken stems as if the stems were hunted animals, loaf about, and then patiently sit and wait for an adult to return with food.

Returning fox parents are usually greeted with a great deal of excitement by the hungry cubs. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that a chaotic melee ensues.

When not fully weaned, some of the fox cubs may immediately suckle the returning vixen, whilst whatever prey item has been brought back will be quickly taken and carried away by other youngsters, often after a spirited tug-of-war between competing siblings.

Yes, feeding time really is a sight to behold for those fortunate enough to obtain a glimpse into this aspect of fox family life.

References:
Collins Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Europe: David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett
   

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