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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Urban fox hunt
Captured fox
Foxes - once mostly confined to the countryside - are becoming almost as common in cities as stray cats.

It is estimated that more than 30,000 of them have moved into urban areas - one was even spotted in Downing Street.

Some people are delighted to have these elusive creatures living close by but others claim foxes ruin their gardens and spread disease so they are paying to have them trapped or shot. Mike Thomson from the BBC's Today programme reports.

Ben Smith from Thornton Heath in south London is quietly watching television in his sitting room when he is joined by an uninvited guest.

A fox with sharp teeth and bad breath is staring at him, while inching towards the spare place on his sofa.

It is the third such visit and Mr Smith has had enough.

Increasingly bold

His guest is one of more than 30,000 foxes that have moved into Britain's towns and cities.

About one in seven foxes are now townies.

Most live in leafy outer suburbs, but more and more are heading for city centres with sightings at places like Buckingham Palace Gardens and the House of Lords.

A dead fox
Nowadays the hunt is not the fox's only worry
Many homeowners are welcoming the new arrivals by leaving out food and milk on their back lawns.

But others complain that foxes are digging up their gardens, fouling their lawns, attacking their pets and ripping open their garbage bags.

All of this is proving a big boom for pest control firms like the one run by Bruce Lyndsay-Smith, who says foxes are now bigger business than rodents.

He has found them in urban lofts, cellars, sheds and even up people's chimneys.

This balding man with a boxer's body was called in by Mr Smith to get rid of his fox intruder.

Overnight vigil

The Today programme joined him for an overnight vigil.

As dusk set in Mr Lyndsay-Smith set up a trap containing a prime piece of lamb which he carefully placed inside a wire cage.

Finally, after an 11-hour wait, the fox, now named Fred, took the bait and was finally behind bars.

He was later released unharmed in an urban woodland around 10 minutes' drive away.

Fred is lucky. Some home-owners have got so fed up with foxes that they are calling in specially trained marksmen to shoot them.

I teamed up with one such small game hunter on a night time safari in the Midlands.

A latter-day Hemingway

Fearing retribution from animal rights activists he asked for his identity to be concealed.

But this latter-day Ernest Hemingway, who spends much of the year shooting wild beasts in southern Africa, was not making any further concessions to urban foxes or their friends.

Late at night we sped off in his dusty Land Rover to answer calls to eliminate a batch of foxes that are making a nuisance of themselves at a nearby golf course.

The fox exterminator
This small game hunter wishes to remain anonymous
With the aid of a giant red-tinted portable searchlight and two high-powered rifles the hunt is under way.

Within a couple of hours five foxes are dead.

He told me: "Some people think foxes are lovely but before long they have all sorts of problems and realise that my method is really the only answer."

The Mammal Society could not agree less.

In its view foxes do little real damage and do not need culling because they control their own numbers naturally.

But some desperate home owners fear that without guns and cages we will soon need red-coated riders with hounds to service surburbia.

See also:

19 Feb 01 | Scotland
Jam sandwich remedy for foxes
19 Jan 01 | UK
Fox hunting: The issues
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