There are two arguments that Australians tend to position themselves within when the topic of foxes in Australia comes up in conversations.
The first is that they are an introduced pest that has caused the extinction of at least 20 mammal species of animals that were unique to Australia, continue to cause millions of dollars damage to the agricultural sector every year, are carriers of mange and other diseases/parasites that are easily spread to domestic dogs and should be wiped of the face of the Australian landscape.
The second is that they are an animal that is just doing what it is on this Earth to do, unaware of its devastation and needing the same respect as any other animal without being demonised. Their intelligence highlighting even more so that it is the responsibility of the Human to take into consideration the nature of this animal and plan accordingly to minimise any attacks on our pets and feathered family members.
Irrespective of your position, this information page is written to increase the awareness of the Australian Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes) population in suburban areas, their capabilities relating to poultry keeping and how to protect your domestic flock.
Fox population densities & breeding cycles
The Department of Environment and Primary Industries says anywhere between three and 16 foxes can be found per square kilometre in Victorian cities, while around 4 per square kilometre are observed in rural/farmland areas. I find these statistics to be staggering. That means, from where I live, in the 9 square kilometres surrounding me with my house in the middle, there are at least 36 foxes approx. that would consider my three girls a great meal.
Feralscan.org.au has a very interesting map that can show you the numbers of reported fox sighting, with a screenshot of Melbourne (chosen because that is where I live) in August 2018 pictured below. You can move the map location to see what is around the area local to yourself.
Breeding season in Australia is from Within Australian fox populations, mating occurs over a 3 to 7 week period from mid-June to the end of July. Fox litter size varies from 3 to 5 cubs per vixen (but can be up to 10 pups) with 85-97 per cent of vixens pregnant each season. Each of those pups can successfully breed within a calendar year.Pregnancy lasts for 51-53 days and cubs are born early August to late September.
At three months of age they hunt for small animals and gradually gain independence by January-February.
Although they may stay in family groups, juvenile foxes become completely independent by March. This period of time is when sightings are increasinly reported as they are no longer living in the family pack and compete for available food.
Young foxes are sexually mature by 9-10 months with 85 per cent of young females breeding in the first year.
So in a good year, the population can explode, and foxes have been known to disperse more than 180km to find a territory of their own. Growing populations mean that poultry keepers report shooting or trapping a fox, only to have one replace it within a week. Put simply, they are thriving.
Where they live?
Suburban areas provide the perfect living and feeding ground for foxes to flourish. And they have. Foxes live under houses and outdoor decking areas, in cemeteries, in ‘green wedge’ and wetland areas, storm water drains, alongside train lines, national parks and on large properties (in fallen wood stacks or fire wood). They also steal wombat dens and rabbit warrens and love the protection that large thickets of blackberries provide (as well as a large food source). When you really start thinking about, there are a heck of a lot of places for foxes to live, pretty much undisturbed.
Creatures of Habit
Foxes are territorial, have routines, are highly intelligent and can learn from their observations. They will change routines and adapt their behaviours to suit their personal goal; stay alive, eat and breed. They are often not seen because they don’t want to be seen, but once they learn an area is safe or there is no immenant threat, they will take risks that very confronting for the people that see them. Travelling 10-20kms each night, they quickly earn when you are home or not home. When the dog is in the yard and when it isn’t. They are known to jump on coops to ‘test’ their build and look for areas of weakness. Scratches and teeth marks on wooden coops, pulled wire and scats are commonly seen but many don’t realise the potential significance of these markings.
Most active periods
The assumption and widespread belief that foxes are only active at night is being dispelled as inaccurate as the fox population grows. Foxes are now regularly seen during daylight hours in suburban areas; as the population grows and competition for food grows, many are forced to hunt in daylight. Vixens are also very active and often visible during breeding season and while raising pups.
Part of the reason that foxes can cause such devastation is the fact that at night, they have hours of (mostly) uninterrupted time to complete their task; being to gain access to their intended meals.
Suburban food sources
A readily available source of food is from Fido’s bowl that Mum and Dad dutifully refill before going to work. They also eat fruit from gardens and blackberry buses (an invasive pest in many areas), out of compost bins and have been spotted eating out of Supermarket dumpsters. And, unfortunately, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs make up a significant part of a foxes diet in suburban areas. They can locate areas of poultry by the natural sounds of ducks quacking, chickens singing an ‘egg song’ after laying and roosters crowing.
Once they have learnt of a potential food source, they are opportunistic and keep returning to look for the weak point in the setup or the one time that you get home late from a wedding and haven’t been home to lock up your flock. On Facebook poultry groups, there have also been reports of foxes taking cats and small dogs for food also.
Cats and neighbourhood dogs often get the blame for attacks on poultry but more often than not, a fox is responsible. The owners just underestimate or are unaware of how crafty foxes are and how many live in the area.
Sometimes the only sign of a fox visit is the fact that a chicken (for example) has gone. No blood and gore. Just simply vanishing, with sometimes only a few feathers left behind. The more devastating scenes stay with Poultry Keepers forever.
Vixens training young pups will often take the head/neck off poultry, drink the blood and regurgitate it to young pups in the den to give them the taste for meat. Then, once more independent and active, they will hunt in small packs with Mum to complete their training.
Foxes do not kill for fun, but can get caught up in a blood-lust frenzy when large amounts of prey are within a contained area (ie. a chicken coop). It is also normal for juveniles and mothers training their cubs to kill in excess of what their immediate needs are. This is because foxes participate in a behaviour known as ‘caching’. This is when they will kill a large amount of prey, and if left undisturbed (in nature this is more evident, not in someone’s backyard) they will return to retrieve the bodies, dig a hole and bury them as an accessible food source for the future when food might be scarce.
Foxes can vary in size, depending on a combination of genetics and food availability. Reports have varied from viewed foxes being as large as Border Collie dogs to as small as 4-5kg in urban areas. Foxes also have a retractable rib cage which means they can squeeze through gaps as small as 8-10cm. Basically if they can fit their heads in a gap, they can fit their bodies.
Foxes are very agile creatures and can jump/climb over a 2m fence easily and without virtually any effort. There are many videos on YouTube to show this. Literally gone in the blink of an eye. They are also great climbers, regularly seen climbing and standing in trees up to 12 metres high (40 feet, in the old measurements) viewing the area around them.
I have also been told of a Primary School who set up a chicken coop and kitchen garden area in an under-utilised tennis court, with great success. Until one day the kids discovered their flock, completely slaughtered and a fox trapped inside the high boundary fences of the tennis court. Kids were traumatised by the devastating manner in which their School Pets had died and the local Council had to be called to remove the fox.
Does this mean I shouldn’t keep chickens?
No, it doesn’t. Although fox attacks reported on Facebook groups are all too frequent, there are thousands of poultry keepers who still keep chickens/geese/ducks/turkeys/quails and are able to enjoy their Feathered Family members. There are precautions you are advised to take below to take the best care you can of your flock’s environment when you live in Suburban areas.
How to keep your flock safe
When building or considering an area to keep backyard poultry, the ideal for a fox-proof chicken coops is fully enclosed lockable coop/night area with a concrete floor and an enclosed run with roof. Wire guage should be considered for strength, knowing that heavier guage (thicknesses) are more expensive. Anything less than 1.2mm in thickness a fox can get through in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. 1.2mm is considered fox ‘resistant’ and most quality wire over 2.0mm is fox proof.
Imported chicken coops that are made from lightweight wood will not provide adequate protection in the wired areas to keep your pets safe, so please consider reinforcing the areas with a better quality wire or upgrade the entire coop to a more robust setup. Please also keep in mind that commercially available chicken wire is made to keep chickens in a specific area and NOT made to keep foxes (and other hungry predators) out.
For a coop or run that isn’t enclosed, it is recommended that you make a wire ‘skirt’, which is at least 30cm long. This should either be dug into the ground (again, heavier guages should be galvanised for longevity) or pinned onto the ground with stones/socks and other materials to make digging more difficult.
Given that foxes are proficient climbers, some keepers recommend loose/wobbly fence tops (as foxes won’t feel secure climbing wobbly structures) or structures with roofing materials which are difficult to get into.
Given the increase in daylight fox attacks, many chicken keepers only let their flocks out for free range time when they are home or relatively close by. Dogs can provide only minimal protection, as foxes are very quick at learning which dog is a threat to them or not. Livestock guardian dogs, such as Maremmas, are much more effective but unsuitable for suburban backyards as they need space to roam and animals to protect.
To protect a free ranging flock in more open areas, electric poultry netting/fences and a solar energizers are used with great success worldwide and are the gold standard for free range egg farming. They are also available from Our Online Shop. Solar fox lights have also been used with varying success – they use LED lights that randomly flash at different intervals . More than one is necessary to ensure ongoing protection, as well as relocating them to different positions/locations regularly (but not rotating in the same locations). The design of Fox Lights are made to trick foxes into thinking that Humans are out with a torch… which is why more than one and relocating to random positions is so important to their success.
Lastly, and most reliably, your flock always needs to be locked up at night. ALWAYS. This can be a very frustrating chore, especially on cold evenings or when you want to get away for the night or for a holiday… but you can pretty much guarantee the one time you forget or try to chance it will be the one night you have a fox visit.
The most reliable and best investment you can make for your sanity, and the safety of your beloved backyard flock, is a ChickenGuard Automatic Chicken Coop Door Openers.