Urban Foxes in South London

On my last night in London, I saw foxes.

Ghost fox in south London.

Ghost fox in south London.

The first fox appeared on a city street as we were eating a delicious dinner at Thai Corner Cafe in East Dulwich in south London.


The fox appeared across the street, where he sniffed the wall enclosing an old church before lifting his leg just like a dog.

Where the fox appeared.

Where the fox was.

Then he startled and zipped down the street, ducking into an overgrown area in front of the building.

England has a large population of urban foxes. Red foxes are such a common sight in parts of London, including East Dulwich, that our London friends were quite amused, if not bemused, by me bolting out of the restaurant and down the street for a better look. They later told me that foxes appear regularly on their street in the middle of the night, lured by the availability of trash as well as food (misguidedly, in my opinion) put out for them by a neighbor.  Look out your window at three in the morning, our friends said, and you may well see a fox or two. They also described an absolutely horrific sound – if memory serves, Jon said it was like a baby being strangled –  made by foxes in the night.

After finishing our meal at the Corner Cafe, our friends took us to Nunhead Reservoir in the quickly waning light to bid farewell to the city that rose far below us.

The view from Nunhead Reservoir.

The view from Nunhead Reservoir.

The reservoir itself is underground, covered by a high heath-like mound, an open space from which we looked out at the city.  When I turned around to look behind me, I saw a four-legged shape silhouetted in the gathering dark. “Jon,” I interrupted. “Is that a fox?”

A fox at Nunhead Reservoir.

A fox at Nunhead Reservoir.

It was a fox. In fact, two foxes. The one I photographed in the dim light was very active, hunting and running freely about the open space. When we approached a little closer, both foxes disappeared in the direction of the overgrown Victorian cemetery that borders one side of the reservoir.

Cemeteries provide perfect habitat for many urban animals, offering places to hide and den as well as open areas for hunting small rodents. In NYC, a coyote has been frequently spotted at a large cemetery in Queens. (They also breed in the Bronx, and have been seen in Manhattan and Staten Island.) In fact, urban foxes in the UK seem to occupy a similar niche as coyotes now do in many North American cities. Both canids seem to be remarkably well adapted to city life.  And lucky Britain does not have to worry about rabies, having  effectively eradicated the disease years ago through stringent regulations requiring vaccinations of pets and quarantines on animals brought into the country. The last spate of rabies cases occurred after World War I, when service members brought infected dogs home from European countries. Here in the eastern US, rabies is a significant concern among wild foxes, as friends on the eastern shore of Maryland learned a few years ago when they were pursued, as in a horror movie, by a rabid fox.

Farewell, London foxes and farewell, London.

The Millenium Wheel seen from south London.


Explore posts in the same categories: 2013, In the City, Wildlife/Natural History

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26 Comments on “Urban Foxes in South London”

  1. You got some great captures.

  2. […] Urban Foxes in South London (outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Urban Foxes in South London (outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com) […]

  4. The urban foxes in England are really well studied (there’s a ton of info about them in the scientific literature) — perhaps even the best studied urban canid population in the world? The Chicago coyotes are becoming a close second, I think, but that study is much younger than many of the British studies. Red fox also do great in many North American cities (as mentioned above) — we regularly see them down here in DC, and there have been studies in other American and Canadian cities across the continent. Red fox are actually not native here, though — they were brought over by British colonials who wanted to fox hunt! There are native reds, but they’re only found in a few isolated populations in Canada and the Sierra Nevadas. Gray foxes are the native foxes here, although reds have been around for so long that most people consider them native. They tend to be harmless, but like any predator (and many other wild animals), you can run into trouble if they’re fed. There have been attacks in Britain by foxes who were fed by people, so there are campaigns to get people to stop doing that. It’s tradition for many, though, so it’s hard to get buy-in! They are fascinating animals…

  5. […] nature blogger Out Walking the Dog has also reported sights of urban foxes in South London, taking it as an opportunity to discuss larger urban wildlife. So I took that as an opportunity to […]

  6. theresagreen Says:

    So pleased you got to see some urban foxes! I enjoy seeing them too – only thing I don’t like about them is their exceptionally stinky poo! Dogs love to roll in the stuff too…. Shame you missed our heatwave!

  7. Charlotte Says:

    For all your readers who are interested in urban foxes, I recommend George Saunders’ “Fox 8: A Story” (audio short found on Amazon) told from fox’s POV, of encroaching development. It’s brilliant. Could apply to coyote’s as well…

  8. mthew Says:

    The garden of the Natural History Museum is rumored to have a den…. although I saw no sign of it when there a couple weeks ago. Lovely place to visit, London.

    • Natural History Museum would be an appropriate spot for a fox den. The foxes I saw were beautiful animals, and I felt lucky to watch them. I was only in London three days, but I loved it. Hadn’t been in decades.

  9. Andre Says:

    wow – cool – I am glad because I thought they eradicated them from London.
    In any event – foxes have been in NYC for longer than coyotes… I believe they are red foxes. The trail cameras catch them in Bronx Park (in the forest of the NY Botanical) catch them… Not sure about Brooklyn or Manhattan – but they are known to frequent residential areas of Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island.

    • Fascinating, Andre. I’ll have to research NYC foxes. I’ll bet they are red foxes, which seem to be a bolder, more adaptable species than our gray foxes. Of course, it makes perfect sense that they would be here. I mean, why wouldn’t they be, really – at least, as you say, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. Your comment here, and fojap’s about seeing foxes in Baltimore, makes me realize they are probably doing just fine within many North American cities. Interesting! As for eradicating them from London… good luck with that! They seem to be omnipresent: healthy, strong, fleet and beautiful animals.

      • Andre Says:

        I think gray foxes are more aggressive actually…

        They are prevalent in the suburbs. I’ve personally seen them in Westchester and the Hudson Valley a couple times. One walked right up to my car while I was on a mountain lookout in Ulster County. But yeah I haven’t seen one personally in the 5 boroughs – but they exist… here are pictures a fox in the Bronx:


        oh no – I wasn’t advocating them getting rid of them in London. It’s just that I know in Europe they eradicated many predators in the past.

  10. virginiafair Says:

    While I am quite accustomed to seeing fixes here in Putnam County, I’m amazed that they’re in London too. Many many years ago I lived in the Borough of Islington in North London and squirrels were the closest I came to seeing a fox. I wonder if they’ a common sight there as well. Hampstead Heath would provide a natural habitat

  11. fojap Says:

    We have foxes here in Baltimore. I’ve seen them running along my street which is just to the north of Johns Hopkins. We’re also in the midst of a rabies outbreak at the moment.

    The description of a baby being strangled is very apt. The first time I heard it I ran outside thinking that a young child had had an accident. There was a fox sitting nonchalantly in the middle of the street making an awful noise.

    • I had no idea they were so prevalent in Baltimore. Adaptable little critters! Sorry, though not at all surprised, to hear about the rabies epidemic. My friends on the eastern shore now have a litter of healthy fox cubs playing around their property, but the brush with the rabid fox a couple of years ago was really frightening.

      • fojap Says:

        As far as I understand, it’s not at the level of an epidemic at the moment, but several dogs and a fox needed to be put down.

        Although well within the city limits, I live just at the edge where the dense urban fabric starts turning suburban. Townhouses and a Brooklyn level of density to the right and single family homes to the left. We also have quite a few large, fairly wild, parks in the city. Unfortunately, the crime rate keeps me from exploring them. I spent most of my adult life in New York and I’m used to going wherever I like. However, native Baltimoreans tell me not to go in them alone.

        Foxes are normally very shy. I’m still trying to get a decent picture of one. A couple of years ago, I was sitting very still trying to take pictures of birds when suddenly I realized that I was nose to nose with a fox. We mutually scared the heck out of one another. It wasn’t until he was running away that I even thought to snap the shutter.

        • Well, if you ever succeed in getting a shot, let me know! I’d love to post it, if you don;t use it yourself. Your description of coming nose to nose with a fox reminds me of the first time I saw a fox up close and personal. I was still a teenager and traveling in the French Alps. I was sitting on a large rock outside a rural youth hostel overlooking Lake Geneva – stunning view – and reading Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I was completely still, immersed in the story. When I looked up, there was a red fox looking back at me. We stared at each other for a while, and then he turned around and disappeared down the slope. The encounter took my breath away, and added an extraordinary perspective to Isabel Archer’s travails.

  12. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    I like this london post and feel like I was there with you.

  13. The urban eco-niche … an abundance of food, shelter and complete absence of predators…. interesting post.

    • Yes, absence of predators is another important factor here. In fact, UK foxes have fewer predators than in the US where coyotes, bobcats, lynx will kill them. Of course, humans are major predators here and there… don’t go robbing the henhouse, Reynard! Thanks for visiting, Nature on the Edge.

  14. LeslieB22 Says:

    Nice story! I occasionally see foxes in Berlin. I’m not sure about the rabies situation in Germany, but my fellow Berliners seem to take urban foxes as a matter of course. There is one that everyone seems to know, the Museum Island Fox, and I saw another walking under the elevated U1 train line as well. The closest encounter was in the botanical garden Britzer Garten – he ran right up to a bunch of people just to check us out. I meant to post about this on Urban Plant Research but haven’t gotten around to it – hope to upload the pictures soon.

  15. Barbara Says:

    In many areas of Ontario rabies is addressed by arial drops of meat in specific parts of the province where rabies is a problem… the meat is filled with an oral vaccine which is helping to control the disease, at least in foxes.

    Lucky you Melissa – what wonderful photos of the foxes and London one of my favourite cities. Sounds like a great trip to me!

    • I know that method is also used to vaccinate raccoons, which continue to be a rabies carrier on the east coast. I believe Canada worked hard to keep the rabies, which originated in the southeast, from moving across the border through vaccination programs like the one you describe for foxes. Here in NYC, they caught and hand-vaccinated our raccoon population when rabies broke out. A heroic – and successful – public health effort.

      And yes, Barbara, it was a great trip, thank you!

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