For the second time now, I have seen a fox (Vulpes vulpes) in my garden - the first time it was slinking around drinking water from the saucers of my plants last year and it had the audacity to just stand and stare at us, as if we were the intruders, before taking off. Yesterday, my dogs went into overdrive when another fox had the nerve to show itself on top of our cisterna, and I don’t know who was more surprised, it, the dogs, or ultimately me.

They are easy to recognise. Small/medium sized with a pointy face, black-lined ears and paws and usually a reddish-brown colour with a white underbelly and a long tufty white-tipped tail, with very little difference between the sexes, apart from the obvious...um…. male bits, which I didn’t get a chance to check!

I don’t know why I should be so surprised to see one - after all, foxes can be found throughout Portugal mostly living in forests and agricultural areas and are known to venture into towns and villages in search of food, and as I live in a rural area, we get our share of wild animals - rabbits, hares and boar - and obviously foxes too.

Opportunistic

The fox is an opportunistic animal and is one of the most common carnivores in the northern hemisphere and will eat almost anything.

Although mostly carnivorous, the fox is actually an omnivore and adjusts its diet to available resources, which will include mice, rabbits, birds, reptiles, snakes, insects and amphibians. In the absence of these food sources, it will eat eggs, fruit, berries, and even dead animals (which provides an important service to the ecosystem).

This opportunism has made foxes to be associated with cunning and guile, but it is thanks to this trait that the fox is such a resilient animal in the wild and can sustain its numbers.

A male fox is called a dog, the female a vixen and young foxes are called pups, cubs, or kits. They reach sexual maturity when they are one year old and have a lifespan of 3-4 years. Four or five young are born to a litter after only 52 days gestation and are born blind with dark brown fur, very different from their later colouring.

The cubs mature quickly and may be seen coming out of the den as early as 3-4 weeks after birth, but if the parents sense danger, they will collect the cubs by the scruff of their necks and move them to a different part of the den or to a different one nearby and might move them several times during the rearing process.

Did you know that the fox and the Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus) are the only two wild canids naturally occurring in Portugal? They are, however, animals with different behaviours: wolves hunt and live in packs, while foxes hunt alone and are less social, but may live in small family groups of up to four females and one male.

Habitat

Foxes can be found throughout mainland Portugal in mountainous or rural areas, and prefer to inhabit forests, scrub, grasslands and planted fields, but are smart enough to hunt in the vicinity of villages, near crops and livestock where the pickings might be good - even landfills, where they will scavenge through garbage for food. They can adapt to less hospitable terrain if necessary, including deserts or tundra.

They can travel up to 10k a day hunting and defending their territory, with a keen sense of smell to locate their prey. To safeguard what they have caught, they bury food in holes, and return to these spots when necessary. They will hide in their dens, which they either dig themselves or steal from other animals.

They have a conservation status of ‘Low Concern’ both in Portugal (Red Book of Vertebrates) and abroad (IUCN Red List – International Union for Conservation of Nature).

But be warned, the fox is not a cute little orange dog, it is a wild eating machine, agile, adaptable and curious, with a Houdini-like capability to escape when the going gets tough.