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Fox family life and fox life cycle

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’.

Underground breeding dens in banks on open ground or at woodland edges may be excavated in preparation for the birth of the cubs, although New Forest foxes often seem to take the easy option and commandeer and enlarge 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, almost 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.

Fox gestation period is around 52 days, births are usually in March or April, and the typical litter size is 4 or 5 cubs, although in the New Forest, litters of 6, or sometimes more, are not uncommon.

Fox cubs at birth are blind and deaf, their nose is relatively short, their ears are small and floppy, and their fur is short and very dark. The vixen’s body heat is needed by the cubs for the first 2 to 3 weeks of life - during at least the early part of this period, she is provisioned by the male: he leaves food by the den entrance for her.

After around 4 weeks, the cubs first venture above ground, hesitantly initially. By this time, their coat is darkish brown with a reddy tinge to the face, their ears are more like those of adults: longer and erect; and their muzzle has lengthened and will continue to do so as adult facial features are progressively developed over the next 4 - 6 weeks. Adult coat colour is also fully assumed over this period, starting, at least in some animals, at the front and working backwards.

Following first emergence, hunting and foraging instincts quickly kick in as the cubs seek out earthworms and insects to supplement a mixture of 'mother's milk' and solid food brought back for them by both the dog fox and vixen. Relatively large mammals, such as rabbits, and birds are often provided for the cubs, whilst for themselves, the adults apparently favour smaller prey items, such as mice and voles.

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, maybe more developed, youngsters, often after a spirited tug-of-war between competing siblings. Those that miss out on the solid food and are unable, or not inclined, to suckle may simply, agitatedly nuzzle the adult's mouth and throat, and maybe whine, to encourage regurgitation of partly digested food and maybe spur on a speedy resumption of hunting.

Cubs are suckled for around 4 weeks and progressively weaned thereafter. Some are fully weaned by around 6 - 7 weeks of age, whilst others may still be suckling well beyond this stage.

A fox cub patiently awaits the return of its parents
A fox cub patiently awaits
the return of its parents

Certainly not all cubs necessarily develop at the same rate, for within a litter may be very well-grown, well-fed, dominant youngsters - almost miniature adults in appearance - that, by virtue of their strength, regularly succeed when competing for food with siblings; alongside other smaller, less developed, subordinate cubs that still retain their 'baby face' features. Indeed, right from birth, cubs - like many other wild creatures - are in a battle for life where only the fittest survive.

Almost inevitably, some cubs do not survive, and it has been said that in the first weeks of life, as many as 20% die underground, often as a result of squabbles with siblings, their tiny, lifeless bodies consumed by surviving brothers and sisters. Maybe the unfortunates were inherently weak - the runts of the litter - and destined for a short life; or maybe they were simply unlucky, always at the end of the queue when trying to suckle.

For cubs that do survive the sometimes traumatic early stages of life, growth in times of plenty is often rapid, and by summer they are of similar appearance to the adults, although often with a tendency towards a more long-legged, lanky look. By early autumn, when around 6 - 7 months old, after their winter coat has replaced that of summer, they are largely indistinguishable from adults.

In the weeks immediately after first emergence, cubs tend to stay close to the den, but as confidence grows they progressively wander farther afield, spurred on in part by curiosity, in part by growing mobility and in part by the natural urge for independence.

Research from elsewhere suggests that cubs abandon the den in June and lie up during the day in undergrowth - in the New Forest, mature bracken often obscures the view, but there is no reason to believe that behaviour here is any different to that of other country foxes. In July, apparently, they increasingly follow their parents on hunting expeditions and start to forage for themselves, and some or all of those that manage to survive - a relatively small proportion of the cubs born in spring - fully disperse from late-September through to late-winter.

A fox and cub on the move
Adult fox carring a cub
If subject to unacceptable levels of disturbance, including by badgers, foxes will move their cubs, particularly very young ones, to another nearby den. I’ve also at dusk watched a fox emerge from one part of a badgers’ sett, scent-mark around the entrances, and then go off to hunt. Minutes later, a badger emerged from a nearby sett entrance, diligently sniffed the air, and then rapidly moved its cubs, one at a time, picked up by the scruff of the neck, to another part of the sett. (Illustration courtesy of Dreamstime.com, other images copyright Andrew P. Walmsley).
Dominant cubs survive;
the weak may perish
Two weaker cubs
Some years ago, I watched cubs at a den near Fritham and noticed on a number of occasions within a few days, a very small, weak-looking cub curled up in bracken beside a holly bush at least 50 metres from the main den area. It didn't attempt to move away, but simply stared back at me as I passed within a few feet, en-route to my watching position.

Eventually I saw it no more and assume that it perished. Maybe for whatever reason it had been ostracised by the group, or had simply tired of being persecuted by more dominant cubs, or ignored by adults that favoured the stronger animals. Whichever applied, it certainly seems unlikely that it would have had access to food so far away from the main den.

Similarly, at a den not far from Lyndhurst, two of a litter of six - tiny creatures still with much dark brown fur and 'baby' faces - spent a lot of time inactive above ground, even during the day, curled up on a den entrance spoil heap and tolerant of my nearby presence, seemingly without the energy, or not inclined, to move underground - they're shown above.

Three others in the litter were hardly more developed, whilst one was particularly well-grown, with sandy-red fur and almost fully formed foxy facial features, a dominant animal that I watched regularly target more weakly siblings during bouts of 'play' fighting.

Cub whining at den entrance

After a 7 day break from watching, I returned to the den to find only the dominant cub present, frequently whining in the direction of the main den entrance, apparently trying to coax the others out - it's shown above. No other cubs appeared, I know not why - maybe they had been moved to another den, maybe they had perished for want of food or on a busy nearby road, or maybe there were other more sinister, human-related reasons for their apparent disappearance.

'Play' fights help to establish
and maintain the cubs'
status within the group
Cubs play fighting
Frequent 'play' fights take place amongst very young cubs, to help establish and maintain status within the group and as an aid to honing hunting skills in preparation for the rigours of the world away from the den. Some fights seem to simply be fun activities, but the one shown here was none-too-friendly - it's perhaps not surprising that weaker animals try to stay well away from stronger rivals. Hierarchies amongst the cubs are apparently well-established by the time they are 7 or 8 weeks old, and serious fights after that time are unusual.
Cubs play fighting

Find out more about New Forest foxes

References:
Collins Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Europe: David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett
Town fox, Country fox: Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald
Collins Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs: Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom
BBC Wildlife on-line edition: www.discoverwildlife.com
The Fox Website: www.thefoxwebsite.com

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The waiting game
Fox cub awaiting the return of its parents

Fox cubs have to be patient when awaiting the return of a parent with food. The time is usually spent simply sitting or lying about the area of the den, wrestling and 'play' fighting with siblings, grooming themselves and each other, pouncing on bracken stems as if the stems were hunted animals, and exploring and generally wandering about, sometimes in search of tasty earthworm and insect morsels amongst the grass or leaf litter.

At last, food
is delivered
Fox cub awaiting the return of its parents

Fox cubs are typically fed on relatively large prey items, such as rabbits, birds and, in the New Forest, probably squirrels. Rabbits certainly provide a good feed for multiple hungry youngsters, but whilst the cubs' milk teeth remain, cannot easily be consumed without first being pulled apart. A tug-of-war (seen underway here) helps break open the prey whilst also ensuring that the larger, more dominant cubs enjoy the lion's share of the spoils.

New Forest ponies
New Forest ponies in the road
New Forest ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but in 2015, 55 were killed on the roads.
Always take care when driving
Disturbance at the den -
friend or foe?
A fox cub keeps a wary eye on an encroaching pony

Foxes are intelligent creatures and quickly realise that two-legged, human visitors to the den potentially mean trouble. In contrast, the many large four-legged inhabitants of the New Forest - the deer, ponies and cattle, for example - are not a threat. This cub is curious about the intentions of the grazing pony nearby and wants to investigate, but shows no sign of fear.

Growth is rapid
A long-legged, gangly juvenile fox

Growth for cubs that survive the early weeks of life is rapid. This image was taken at the end of May, close to an active foxes' den. The animal is relatively long-legged, a characteristic most often associated with juveniles, although young of the year by this time would not normally be so well-grown. It is more likely that it is actually a very thin, gangly young adult, a first time breeder that has been too busy feeding its cubs rather than itself.

Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley