There are some animals on Earth that seem to be ever present wherever you go. They are mostly smaller invertebrate species, such as flies and mosquitoes (that we mostly regard as pests), or common birds such as pigeons that occupy railway stations and city squares with the same ease as a local park or back garden.
But among the world’s larger mammals, the red fox is one of the most widespread with a vast global range stretching across the northern hemisphere from North America to Europe and North Africa, the Middle East, and right across Asia to the Far East, including Japan. Apart from Antarctica, the only continent not to support a red fox population is South America.
Foxes were also absent in Australia until the 1830s when they were introduced by British settlers for hunting. Today, Australia’s red fox population is estimated to be more than seven million, and their presence as an apex predator has had a devastating impact on native Australian wildlife. The extinction of several species of small marsupials, such as the desert rat kangaroo, can be directly attributed to the bushy-tailed British immigrant.
SIZE AND ADAPTABILITY
Their vast global range (approximately 70 million square kilometres) across a wide variety of ecosystems, makes the red fox one of the world’s most common and resilient animals. They are also the largest of the fox species, although there are physical variations across the continents. The North American red fox is lightly built when compared to its British and European cousins but with a longer, leaner body. In 2012, the largest red fox ever recorded in the UK was a male killed in Scotland – it weighed more than 17kg and measured nearly 1.5 metres in length.
The physical size of the red fox means it usually dominates other fox species that share part of its geographical range, including the Arctic fox. However, this species can escape competition by moving further north where food is scarce. In more arid climes, the much smaller swift and kit foxes prevail, although red foxes are increasing their range and often kill swift and kit foxes should their paths ever cross.
The only other species of fox that can hold its own when confronted is the grey fox. Such encounters are infrequent as grey foxes prefer a heavily wooded habitat, while reds prefer a more open environment. However, encounters have become more frequent due to deforestation of the grey fox’s habitat, thereby allowing red foxes to colonise areas previously inhabited only by greys.
The physical size of the red fox and its position as an apex predator in much of its range, means it has developed an almost insouciant response to living close to humans. In fact, urban fox populations in major cities have grown appreciably in the decades since the end of the Second World War. Scientists estimate that nearly 15 per cent of Britain’s foxes – around 30,000 – now live in our cities, with around 10,000 of those in London alone.
Urban fox sightings become more prevalent during the summer months as cubs emerge from their earths to scavenge food, mark their territory and learn to fend for themselves.
Unlike their rural cousins, urban foxes are often described as bold or fearless in man’s presence, such has been the ease with which they have adapted to the urban environment. Although their instinct is to avoid confrontation with humans, urban red foxes are regularly spotted in peoples’ gardens, walking across suburban streets, even sleeping on shed roofs in broad daylight.
With such highly visible and bold behaviour, some photographers expect plenty of daytime sightings, but the truth is that red foxes aren’t that easy to photograph, as they are most active at night, or during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.
The starting point for photographing foxes in an urban environment is the same as for more rural surroundings: you need to use your powers of observation to build up knowledge about the animal’s behaviour, life cycle, diet and territory.
Foxes are omnivorous and have a broad diet, with small rodents such as field mice, voles and squirrels forming their staple diet. They will also eat small birds, reptiles, various insects and other invertebrates, as well as wild fruits such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, plums and cherries. Like most predators, red foxes are nocturnal hunters, often taking farm chickens that haven’t been secured properly, or raiding suburban garbage bags filled with food scraps.
Having fed during the night or early morning, foxes will spend most of their daylight hours sleeping. Like many animals, they prefer to lie in warm sunshine and will curl up nose-to-tail like domestic cats and dogs. Don’t be surprised if you see one in a secluded and undisturbed part of your garden.
The fox may be asleep but their keen sense of smell and acute hearing mean they can react quickly as soon as they sense your presence, so use a telephoto zoom of 70–200mm or longer. A longer telephoto zoom, such as a 100–400mm, covers most frame-filling options without moving from your vantage point. The key is to maintain your distance and keep any movement to a minimum, preferably slowly and silently.
Red foxes are active all year round, but many wildlife photographers tend to enjoy the challenge of capturing these cunning predators in the winter months.
Firstly, the colder conditions, especially when temperatures are rarely above freezing, means foxes need more food to maintain their energy levels and body warmth. As a result, sightings are more likely, even in the shorter daylight hours.
Secondly, a fresh snowfall provides a perfect uniform background for the russet red and brown coat of the fox, making them more prominent – and easier to track – in the viewfinder.
Another reason is related to their hunting technique. When hunting field mice, a red fox will first pinpoint the prey’s location by sound, then leap into the air with all four legs off the ground. As the fox rises above its quarry, it will arch its back and steer in mid-air with its tail, before pouncing directly down onto the hapless rodent. Photographing foxes like this in ‘mid-pounce’ is a favourite goal of many, but this image looks even more spectacular in a snow-covered field, where the fox stands out sharply against the all-white surroundings.
RISKS AND MYTHS
One of the reasons foxes are a favourite subject for wildlife photographers is because they have piercing eyes when looking directly at the camera. Of course, focusing on the eyes is a ‘rule’ of any animal portrait, so you should select spot metering and make an exposure reading from the eyes. This way, you will ensure the eyes – the main focal point – are accurately exposed and in focus.
Focusing with a telephoto lens requires greater care because depth of field reduces with longer focal lengths. The greater image magnification of a telephoto also magnifies any movements made to the lens, so it is important to select a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze any action or movement. For this reason, wildlife photographers using long lenses more often shoot at the widest aperture, say f/2.8 or f/4, to enable the fastest possible shutter speed. However, wider apertures mean narrower depth of field, so focusing needs to be critical.
Of course, choosing a higher ISO rating can also help the photographer select a faster shutter speed without compromising depth of field. And with the much improved image quality now being achieved at higher ISO ratings, more photographers are choosing to do this as a matter of course.
The ubiquitous presence of the red fox has not endeared it to humankind. In many civilisations, past and present, it is regarded with suspicion and treated as vermin, to be hunted and wiped out. Even in the Northern Hemisphere, maintaining a distance from foxes is also advisable because of the numerous parasites and diseases they may carry. Red foxes are the most prominent rabies carrier in Europe and are also likely to be vectors in spreading erysipelas, brucellosis and tick-born encephalitis.
In much of our folklore the red fox is a worthy adversary, a respected foe. For the wildlife photographer, they deserve a considered and thoughtful approach if you are to get the images you desire.
Select Continuous Focus (CF). Except when sleeping, foxes are rarely still for long, so this setting will enable you to keep focusing while the fox keeps moving. Make sure the AF points are locking on the face of the animal when you take your picture.
Use a telephoto zoom lens. To get those frame-filling portraits as well as full-length compositions, a telephoto zoom lens such as 70–300mm or 100–400mm will cover most likely situations, without changing lenses.
Fire a burst of frames. Whether the fox is on the move or still, setting your camera drive to Continuous (C) to shoot a burst of frames is advisable as the fox is likely to flee from view anyway once it hears your camera fire!
Make any noise! It may seem obvious, but once you have spotted a fox, even a sleeping one, maintain your position and stay low. Move quietly, focus quickly and squeeze the shutter.
Use flash. Even in the low light of winter, flash just gives your position away and is unlikely to add much illumination over a long distance. Instead, crank up the ISO setting when light levels are low and select a wide aperture to ensure a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any action.
Leave out food. Red foxes are wild animals and their presence in urban areas does not mean they should be treated in the same way as domestic dogs and cats. Leaving out food will encourage foxes to visit regularly but can also lead to dangerous encounters, bites and disease.
Fox by Martin Wallen, Reaktion Books, pb, £11.65
Urban Foxes by Stephen Harris & Phil Baker, Whittet Books, hb, £9.99
Running with the Fox by David W Macdonald, Harper Collins, hb, £45
Accessory option: Walking boots
At this time of year, a stout pair of walking boots that keep out the cold and wet while protecting your feet in rugged terrain is essential. Scarpa recently updated its Ranger series of walking boots and the GTX Activ (£200) is made for all weathers. This Gore-Tex lined boot has a calf leather upper and Vibram soles for comfort, support and grip.
Camera option: High speed SLR
The new Canon EOS 7D Mk II (£1600) boasts a high speed autofocus system ideal for wildlife photography – the 65 AF points can maintain focus at 10fps! It also includes a 20.2 megapixel CMOS sensor and maximum 16,000 ISO for low-light shooting. It features a magnesium alloy body that is dust and weather resistant and there is built-in GPS as well as full HD video capability.
Lens option: Silent telephoto zoom
No wildlife subject likes to be unexpectedly disturbed, so the quieter you can operate the better, and that goes for your gear too. Lenses with silent AF motors are therefore a good choice. Not only is the Sigma 150–600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM (£1600) silent but it also includes a built-in optical stabilizer to counteract lens movements and vibrations. It has plenty of zooming range and fits Canon, Nikon and Sigma SLRs.
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine