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Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Monday, 7 June 2010 15:54 UK

How common are fox attacks on humans?

The Magazine answers...

Two twin girls are seriously ill in hospital after they were reportedly attacked by a fox as they slept in their cots. So how often does this kind of thing happen?

For some city dwellers, urban foxes are smelly scavengers who wreak havoc in gardens and keep them awake at night, but for others they have an almost mythical quality as they roam the concrete jungle.

Foxes are usually shy but they do bite when they panic

But one mother's account of a fox and her bloodied babies may make people slightly more wary of making friends with their vulpine neighbours.

Pauline Koupparis has described how a fox found its way into the upstairs bedroom of her nine-month-old twins, in her east London home. She heard her daughters crying and when she went in, found the fox there and her babies with serious facial injuries.

Urban wildlife expert John Bryant said such an attack was extremely rare.

"I have only ever heard of two cases in my 40 years of dealing with foxes, one of which turned out to be a German Shepherd and the other a cat," he said.

Fox attacks on humans are very rare
But they do sometimes bite if distressed
And at this time of year, three-month-old cubs are starting to explore on their own

"But it is always possible - there are thousands of three-month old cubs beginning to run around. They smell food and go through an open door but it is freakish that a fox should attack someone."

Mr Bryant said foxes had been known to steal the odd trainer, leave a mess on the floor or have a snooze on someone's bed, but they would usually "do anything to avoid trouble".

"Foxes are among the most amenable, least aggressive mammals you could share your environment with," he said. "It's very rare for a fox to be brave enough to face a cat."

Mr Bryant, who runs an environmental consultancy, said about 16% of Britain's foxes lived in cities, and successive generations were becoming more familiar with human beings.

"They see people all the time, people make friends with them and invite them into their homes," he said. "The foxes don't feel threatened and are becoming bolder."

Two-year life

The University of Bristol's Mammal Research Unit estimates there are 225,000 adult rural foxes and 33,000 urban foxes across Britain.

225,000 adult rural foxes and 33,000 urban foxes roam Britain
84% of wild foxes die before their 2nd birthday
They first colonised British cities in the 1930s
Source: University of Bristol and John Bryant

Researchers say it is difficult to tell if the urban fox population is increasing and sarcoptic mange, a common disease of mammals, has severely reduced fox numbers in some cities.

Geographic variations aside, they think the overall number of urban foxes in Britain is probably much the same as a decade ago.

Red foxes, or vulpes vulpes, first colonised British cities in the 1930s and the highest fox densities are found in cities. Foxes belong to the dog family, will eat anything and can live up to 15 years in captivity. But wild foxes live very short lives, on average about two years.

They are wild animals and will bite if cornered
Martin Hemmington
National Fox Welfare Society

The research unit says foxes kill very few pets and rifle through very few dustbins, and it seems the majority of people like them.

In a poll of nearly 4,000 households, 65.7% liked urban foxes, 25.8% had no strong views and only 8.5% disliked the creatures.

Martin Hemmington is one such fox-lover. He is founder of the National Fox Welfare Society, a rescue charity which also sends out treatment, free of charge, to householders willing to feed foxes suffering from sarcoptic mange.

He has been bitten "many times" in the line of duty and says the majority of urban foxes do not want contact with humans.

"It takes quite a lot of effort to catch them," he said. "Walking into people's houses is not common place and they would never go in with the intention of attacking someone.

"I can only imagine the fox has found itself in a situation and it has become distressed and panicked. They are wild animals and will bite if cornered. Perhaps it was injured or had concussion from a car accident."

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

He says people should keep their distance.

"We receive pictures of foxes curled up on people's settees. People put food inside their houses and think it is lovely to share their living room with a wild fox," he said.

"But if the fox gets into that habit, the people two doors down might not be that happy."

The RSPCA said foxes were shy creatures and the case in east London was an "extremely rare occurrence".

"If people have issues with foxes near their homes they should contact their local authority or a licensed pest controller.

"To discourage foxes from people's property they should also ensure any rubbish and household waste left out is secure and not open for scavenging.

"If anyone has a concern about the welfare of a fox they can contact the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Right here in Woodford there are foxes who come into open kitchen doors and steal runners [trainers] shoos etc .They are as bold as brass, and very cheeky, the problem is people feed them and they come around looking for scraps. Wolves might get rid of them, but they may be a step too far.
Mr C Quinn, Ilford London England

We have two beautiful foxes that visit us in our garden in London. The male is very shy, but over the years the vixen has become confident enough to approach you and now takes food from the hand better than any trained dog I have seen. I hope people do not over-react to this event and treat foxes badly. We should remember that sometimes humans also do bad things if they feel trapped, but we don't let that change how we treat humans collectively!
Alastair, London

I have seen quite a few foxes in Edinburgh over the last few years. A couple of weeks ago, one was in the garden during the day and one of the neighbours cats was on the fence above it. I was worried that the fox would go for the cat, but instead the cat lunged for the fox and scared it off.
Nick, Edinburgh

Mr Bryant says that "foxes are among the most amenable, least aggressive mammals you could share your environment with," which is total rubbish. Without getting into the rights and wrongs of fox-hunting, the reason that rural people started population control in the first place was to manage a species that will kill not just enough chickens than is necessary to feed themselves, but the rest of the coop as well. Urban dwellers may see them as cute and cuddly. The countryside sees them as vicious and deadly vermin, and wonders when the urban populace will catch up.
Lee, London, UK

I had foxes breeding in the next-door garden to mine and my cat was clearly very nervous. Then one day I saw the vixen viciously attacking her - in our garden, right by our back door. If I hadn't been there I think she'd have been minced cat. John Bryant's description of foxes may no longer apply to this fully urbanized generation who have to compete with dogs, cats, unfriendly humans as well as each other for insufficient spaces.
Natasha, London

Foxes have killed my friends' pet rabbit, bitten off its head and buried it in the garden. Another friend had the corpse of his beloved cat dug up and decapitated by foxes. My uncle lives in Yorkshire and raises chicken. He tells me that a fox will break into the chicken pen, kill one chicken for food and then slaughter all the rest out of sheer spite.
Tom, London

We have a regular Fox visitor where I am, and it has been scared off by my KITTEN!
Liam, Herts, UK

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