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About A Week: Four-Legged Friends?

Peter Hinchliffe respects urban foxes - but not all of his neighbours share his affection for the four-footed hunters who now share life with humans in England's towns and cities.

More than 10,000 wild foxes are roaming the streets and alleys of London.

They emerge at night from their lairs in gardens and parks to search for food, though they are also often seen during the day.

For centuries in the English countryside foxes have been treated as vermin. They have been shot or chased to death by packs of hounds and mounted hunters wearing traditional "uniforms."

The Hunting Act of 2004 made it illegal to hunt foxes with dogs. Long before the ban came into force foxes had begun to make their homes in towns and cities. The amount of food discarded by humans ensures that the new four-legged urban dwellers can scavenge a living.

Foxes began to share urban areas with humans around a hundred years ago when farming methods were industrialized, making it more difficult to hunt through fields and along hedgerows.

Now it is not unusual to see foxes rummaging around dustbins or loping across town center and suburban streets.

But urban foxes do not live long. They are often accidentally killed when struck by motor vehicles.

A recent Channel 4 TV program, "Meet The Foxes," which was filmed in London, highlighted the widely opposed reactions of humans to their four-legged neighbors. Some believe foxes are a nuisance and should be shot. Others put out food for them. One retired couple regarded feeding foxes as the perfect retirement hobby. They put out chicken livers for them. Another man called in a marksman to shoot a fox which was regularly visiting his garden.

The same widely differing responses to foxes prevail in the northern industrial town in which I live. Audrey Burley, a pensioner, recently saw a hedgehog face up to a fox in her garden. Audrey is a great lover of wildlife. She thinks the fox is a much-maligned creature. She buys loaves, slices them, spreads margarine on the bread, then makes meat sandwiches. These she places outside for foxes which regularly come to visit.

"A vixen was eating a sandwich when a hedgehog trundled over and joined in," Audrey reports. "The vixen ate one end of the sandwich while the hedgehog chewed away at the other."

Foxes and hedgehogs are not supposed to socialize. Audrey wonders whether anyone else has seen these species sharing the same "meal table."

My neighbor Steven Cook is no friend of foxes. A fox has twice got into his hen pen, killing on both occasions five prize birds.

"I used to take a liberal anti-fox-hunting view," says Steven. "Not any more. Not when you see piles of feathers, and count how many hens you have lost. Now when I think of foxes, I think of a gun, and shooting them."

A charitable organization, the National Fox Welfare Society http://www.nfws.org.uk/index.htm is dedicated to helping wild foxes in a variety of ways.

For many years there was a vigorous campaign to ban fox hunting, the favored country sport of Britain's landed gentry. Farmers and everyday country folk also followed the hunt.

The sound of the huntsman's horn echoed across many a field and valley. Schoolchildren, myself one of them, were taught to sing the most famous of all hunting songs, "Do Ye Ken John Peel," written in the 19th century, featuring a Cumberland farmer who kept a pack of fox hounds.

The lyrics feature the names of Peel's favorite hounds:

D'ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay,
D'ye ken John Peel at the break of day,
D'ye ken John Peel when he's far away,
With his hounds and his horn in the morning.
For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed
And the cry of his hounds which he oft times led,
Peel's 'view hullo' would awaken the dead
Or the fox from his lair in the morning.
Yes I ken John Peel and Ruby too
Ranter and Ringwood and Bellman and True,
From a find to a check, from a check to a view
From a view to a death in the morning
Then here's to John Peel with my heart and soul
Let's drink to his health, let's finish the bowl,
We'll follow John Peel through fair and through foul
If we want a good hunt in the morning.

The ban-hunting campaigners achieved success when the British Parliament passed the Hunting Act in 2004. The act made it illegal in England and Wales to hunt and kill foxes with dogs. The act became law on Feb. 14, 2005. A similar ban was already in force in Scotland. Hounds can still follow the scent of a fox to flush it out, when it can then be shot.

In a Parliamentary debate Kate Hoey, the Labour member for Vauxhall and chairman of the Countryside Alliance, claimed that more foxes are being killed and more people are hunting with hounds since the ban came into force.

She said the law was being broken inadvertently, telling a national newspaper "Accidents happen. If you're going out legally following a scented fox trail and the hounds come across a real fox, they can kill it before it is possible to shoot it."

It is estimated that mounted fox hunts were killing 15,000 foxes a year. Many thousands more were killed in other ways. Gamekeepers accounted for 100,000 a year and the farming community got rid of as many again.

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