Year-long suspension of hunting had no effect on fox numbers.
Fox numbers in the United Kingdom did not change after hunting was suspended last year, say researchers1. This suggests that a permanent ban would not lead to an explosion in the fox population, as some pro-hunting campaigners claim.
Fox numbers regulate themselves, believes zoologist Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol. When hunting drops, more foxes die from causes such as starvation, he says.
"There are a set number of territories, " says Harris. Homeless foxes stand little chance of survival. "One way or another things sort themselves out over the winter."
By counting faeces, Harris and his colleagues estimated fox numbers in 160 sites, each a square kilometre in size, across Britain in 1999, 2000 and 2002.
There are about 200 registered packs of foxhounds in Britain. They are estimated to kill around 25,000 foxes each year in autumn and winter. About five times this number are thought to be killed by snaring, shooting and other means.
In February 2001, all hunting with hounds was suspended in the UK, owing to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The ban lasted for almost a year.
By February 2002, there had been a small, although statistically insignificant, decline in fox numbers compared to 2000, the researchers found.
The finding "strongly supports" the idea that hunting is not needed to control foxes, says Harris. Britain's fox numbers have held steady since the early 1980s, at around a quarter of a million, despite a decrease in the level of hunting, he says.
“It's going to take more than this study to demonstrate what the impact of hunting is Jonathan Reynolds , UK's Game Conservancy Trust”
But fox populations change only slowly, and the effect of one hunt-free year will be small, says Jonathan Reynolds, head of Predation Control Studies at the Game Conservancy Trust. This UK body works on the ecology and management of hunted species.
Reynolds also thinks that counting feces shows where foxes mark their territories, rather than how many animals there are. He suspects that the study may have missed regional differences in fox numbers and hunting pressure.
"I'm glad that somebody has looked at this, but it's going to take more than this study to demonstrate what the impact of hunting is," Reynolds says.
Harris disputes all of Reynolds's points. Urban fox numbers can treble in a few years, he says, and foxes scatter feces across their entire territories. Plus, he says, the study revealed an increase in foxes in eastern England against the overall downward trend. "If there was going to be a change, we would have seen it," he says.
The new evidence "will help those who believe that hunting is irrelevant for fox control", says conservation biologist Joshua Ginsberg, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York. "But," he adds, "it probably won't convince those who think it is needed to control foxes."
This March, the UK government launched a consultation process intended to aid policy-making on hunting. A bill restricting or banning hunting with hounds could be brought before the UK parliament this autumn.
Baker, P. J., Harris, S. & Webbon, C. C. Effect of British hunting ban on fox numbers. Nature, 419, 34, (2002).
UK's Game Conservancy Trust