By ALEC SMART
A wily fox that nipped a few students on the University of NSW (UNSW) campus has been threatened with pest control exterminators by the university’s estate management team.
On Mon 15 June, Newsworthy, the UNSW campus newspaper published by journalism students, reported that at least three students had been bitten by a fox over the previous weekend after they approached the animal.
The article was written after students posted photos of their interactions with the antisocial animal on the UNSW Discussion Group Facebook page.
Describing it as “a sudden escalation of late-night hostilities on the largely deserted UNSW Kensington campus,” Newsworthy went on to reveal, “In each case, the student, late at night, sought to pat the fox, only to get more than they bargained for. There were no stitches required but all three students ended up in Prince of Wales (POW) Emergency Department for a tetanus shot.”
In the wake of the biting incidents, several groups of students set out to find the culprit, which was already known to some as ‘Frankie’, one of at least three red foxes thought to be living in a den somewhere on the 38-hectare Kensington campus.
One man, a student named CJ Wong, admitted he shared some chicken nuggets with Frankie, which subsequently nipped him then snatched the entire bag.
Mr Wong revealed the doctor at POW, whom he visited afterwards for a tetanus injection, said he had also given precautionary jabs to around six students over the preceding three nights for fox bites. Mr Wong confided to Newsworthy, “the pain wasn’t in the [tetanus] jab – it was the $300 medical bill!”
A volunteer from Sydney Fox and Dingo Rescue (SFDR), whose name was later removed from the article (rescuing foxes is illegal; any fox that is abandoned or injured must, by Law, be euthanised, not rehabilitated in a sanctuary), told Newsworthy that fox bites are common in human-fox interactions.
“Foxes generally avoid humans in the wild, but urban foxes have this badass kind of curiosity streak, so they might come up to sniff someone and they can bite,” she said. “They’re sneaky little jerks, sometimes, but it’s part of their quirks.”
Fox off campus
However, the feisty fox might be under a death warrant as the UNSW management are looking to eliminate Frankie and any family members from foraging in the campus grounds, by fair means or foul.
In an email sent to staff after the fox biting incidents, the UNSW administration outlined the measures planned to deal with the naughty nibbler. “The preferred strategy is to encourage the fox to move away from campus on its own. With more people returning [from Covid-19 restrictions] and activity on campus increasing, it is likely the fox will move on and find a more suitable location…
“It is important that you do not feed or approach the fox as this may encourage the fox to stay and possibly draw in other foxes.”
UNSW proposed their estate management team “focus on vermin-eradication and rubbish removal along the northern boundary of campus,” which might encourage the fox to hunt for sources of food beyond the campus grounds.
“If people continue to engage with the fox,” the email continued, “including feeding it, the fox may become desensitised and we may see more incidents that present a safety threat to students, staff and visitors. If this happens, the health and safety of our students, staff and visitors will be the highest priority and the fox will be removed by pest control experts.”
In response to the possible threat to Frankie’s existence, SFDR launched a Care2 online petition calling on the university chancellor David Gonski to “Save the UNSW Foxes”. Within 10 days it attracted 1,400 of its target 5,000 signatures.
The petition stated: “.. there have recently been several incidents on the University of New South Wales Kensington Campus involving one (or likely several) wild foxes. Foxes are highly social animals and it is likely based on reported sightings by students that a small family has taken up residence on the campus grounds.
“SFDR are deeply saddened to hear that the response of the University to these incidents is to try to trap and ultimately euthanise the foxes.
“Foxes are not native animals; however urban foxes are a normal part of Sydney life. Foxes have lived in Sydney since at least the 1880’s and today Sydney foxes number around 120,000. Foxes like Frankie and his family are common across all Sydney suburbs- they are curious but shy animals, mainly coming out at night to search for food such as insects, mice, rabbits and human food scraps. Foxes are not a threat to humans.”
UNSW students also rallied around the fox, and began retailing a 28 cm tall ginger and white soft-toy fox online via the university Grad Shop. The cuddly creature was advertised with the tagline: “Get your hands on your very own Frankie the Fox! 40% of profits from this purchase will go towards Sydney Fox and Dingo rescue and helping provide care to their resident foxes and dingos.”
UNSW’s current mascot is a large lion named Clancy, however, thanks to the hullabaloo surrounding the fox biting incidents, many students are suggesting Frankie succeed as the new mascot.
Exterminating the nippy fox is the university’s legal obligation under the Local Land Services Act 2013.
On 4 Dec 2014 the NSW Govt introduced a Pest Control Order (PCO) under the aforementioned Act declaring European red foxes a pest species. This brought NSW into line with all other states in Australia and placed an onus on landholders to control foxes on their properties.
“All land managers in NSW, whether on public or private land, have an obligation to control declared pest species on their land,” the order declared. Failure to comply with a PCO results in a $8500 fine.
In a factsheet, the NSW Dept Primary Industries (DPI) explained: “Placing a PCO on foxes brings the control of this pest in line with other threats to our environment and agricultural production such as feral pigs and wild dogs. The PCO also means foxes cannot be kept in captivity without a permit, nor are they allowed to be released into the wild…
“Foxes are wild predators that are rarely completely domesticated. Without a concerted effort to domesticate foxes and breeding out the wild traits this species is unsuitable for a domestic pet trade. Permits are not allowed for new cases of fox ownership or fox husbandry.”
Failure to register an existing pet fox resulted in a fine of $3400 per offence. Since 2015, no new permits to keep foxes in captivity have been issued by the DPI.
The European, or red fox – Vulpes Vulpes – is one of 12 fox species worldwide from the Vulpes genus, and a smaller member of the Canidae (carnivorous dog) family that includes wolves and jackals.
Red foxes were introduced to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) as early as 1833 and the British settlements of Sydney and Port Phillip District (now Victoria) around 1845.
Red foxes were imported by English settlers to continue their traditional pursuit of fox hunting on horseback with purpose-bred foxhounds, a sport popular among the aristocracy in Britain.
Fox hunting originated in the United Kingdom in the 16th century although in 2004 a Law was introduced – the Hunting Act – which prohibits fox hunting, deer hunting and hare coursing with dogs in England and Wales.
Foxes are an important part of the eco-system in Britain, where they primarily eat rabbits, an invasive species introduced by the Romans, and breed according to the food supply. However, in Australia they are a major cause of the decline in native species due to their predation of animals in areas where their prey have not evolved to escape a large, fast-paced and nocturnally-suited carnivore.
Although the date of the red fox’s arrival is debated – the Australian Govt’s Department of Environment reports that the “European red fox was deliberately introduced to Australia for recreational hunting in 1855 and fox populations became established in the wild in the early 1870s” – wildlife experts agree on their formidable and indiscriminate destruction of native fauna.
The Dept Environment describes the fox as playing a “major role in the decline of ground-nesting birds, small to medium sized mammals such as the greater bilby, and reptiles such as the green turtle…
“Predation by foxes has also been a significant contributor to native animal decline and continues to undermine recovery efforts for threatened species.”
Fox populations didn’t take off in Tasmania after hunters introduced them, probably due to aggressive competition from indigenous Tasmanian Devils. Today there is debate as to whether the island is fox-free or rogue animals have made it ashore in the last 20 years, hidden in car transport ferries.
However, on mainland Australia, after their mid-19th century arrival, red foxes rapidly adapted and their numbers accelerated. Within two decades they were classified as pests and within a century were prevalent in over 80 per cent of the continent as an apex predator, apart from the far north.
Although they are less common in areas where dingos are prevalent, due to competition for food and their vulnerability to dingo attack, red foxes continue to intrude into the tropical north.
In a 2004 report by the NSW Govt Game Council titled “Counting the Cost: Impact of Invasive Animals in Australia”, the red fox population was then estimated at 7.2 million, which, combined with an estimated 18 million feral cats, 23 million feral pigs, 2.6 million feral goats, and countless billions of rabbits, “inflicts about 83% of the cost impact on the Australian economy. Australia accounts for about one third of the world’s mammal species that have become extinct in modern times.”
In 2016 the NSW DPI reported “Foxes cost Australian farmers more than $37 million each year in livestock losses. The total annual cost of foxes to Australia’s environment and economy is estimated to be over $227.5 million.”
The red fox is mainly nocturnal. According to the NSW DPI, “by day, the red fox usually rests in a hide, this may be a hollow log, tree, an enlarged rabbit burrow or dense undergrowth. By night they hunt and patrol their territory. The red fox is best described as an opportunistic predator and scavenger. Largely carnivorous, foxes eat a diet of 300 g to 450 g/day of small prey in the weight range of 5 to 15 kg, including native animals, birds, rabbits, house mice and carrion. They readily eat fruits such as wild blackberry and insects … When food is abundant, foxes will often bury or ‘cache’ excess food…
“Fox predation is recognised as having a serious impact on many native animals, and is considered to be a major contributor to extinction of some species. Species impacted include: brush tailed and yellow footed rock wallabies, bettongs, numbats, mallee fowl, pied oyster catcher, little tern, plains wanderer, bush stone curlew and the Murray river turtle.”
The spread of the red fox population also corresponds with declines in the distribution of other medium-sized ground-dwelling mammals, including bilbies, wallabies and quokkas, many of which now only live on islands where red foxes are absent or rare.
Foxes climbing trees
A Feb 2017 article in New Scientist magazine revealed that in mid-2016 University of Sydney biological scientist Valentina Mella, whilst filming koalas on the Liverpool Plains 250km west of Sydney, was shocked to capture night footage of red foxes in trees up to 4 metres off the ground.
Ms Mella found that red foxes – a highly intelligent and adaptive species – had learned how to climb trees to prey upon koalas, gliders and other tree-dwelling creatures previously thought out of their reach. “I was quite shocked because I’m from Europe and I’ve never seen a fox in a tree before,” she said.
Australia’s main program of reducing foxes is through meat baits laced with 1080 (synthetic sodium fluoroacetate). It can be safely consumed by several indigenous species, such as possums, bush rats, and kangaroos (due to the toxin’s natural presence in several native plants), but is especially lethal to red foxes and feral cats, pigs and dogs.
However, the RSPCA has criticised 1080’s use as inhumane because it kills slowly through nausea, vomiting, disorientation, seizures, unconsciousness and eventually cardiac arrest.
1080 is also indiscriminate because it kills native amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that also feed on the 1080-laced meat baits, often scattered throughout the bush.
The reintroduction of competitive species has been suggested as a method of controlling fox numbers. CSIRO research concluded that the presence of dingos not only decreases the numbers of foxes, but increases the population and diversity of native fauna.
However, the reintroduction of dingos is something farmers and the agricultural industry is resistant to accept, especially around farmland and human settlements – areas where the red fox is doing most harm.