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Methods of fox control

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Following the ban on hunting with dogs there are now only two legal methods of controlling foxes.

  1. Shooting (with (a) rifle or (b) shotgun);
  2. Trapping (with legal snares or live cage traps).

Terriers may also be used to flush foxes from below ground to be shot but only to protect game birds that are being preserved to be shot.

Illegal methods of killing foxes include:

  1. Gassing (it is not gassing that is illegal, but there are no legal gasses);
  2. Poisoning;
  3. Illegal trapping (using illegal snares and gin traps), and now include
  4. Hunting with hounds, and
  5. Terrier work.


  1. Shooting with rifles.
    It needs a high calibre rifle (i.e. over .22) used by a skilled marksman in ideal conditions. It is vital that the fox is visually identified as the target species; is stationary; that the marksman has sufficient time to take proper aim; and that he has an unobstructed view of the fox.

    It is only practical for large scale control when carried out at night from a vehicle (hence vehicular access is necessary) with a lamp and whistle to “call up” foxes, but foxes soon become lamp shy. “At night” means anti-social hours, involving more than one person. Fox Control in the Countryside (GCT 2000) suggests a strike rate of “0.2 to 0.6 foxes per hour” which with 2 men equates up to 10 man hours per kill.

    Suitability is limited because it cannot be used, even in many rural areas, due to the danger from stray bullets and ricochets (a high velocity bullet can kill at up to 3 miles). The dangers, whether on open moorland or where people, animals, cars or buildings may be concealed from view, are obvious.

    A clean kill can never be guaranteed, even by a skilled marksman. Not all who use this method are skilled marksmen, and when unskilled marksmen use rifles, the risk of wounding is high. Skilled marksmen would have to be trained and paid for if other control methods are banned or restricted.

    When wounding does occur, it can be assumed that the fox’s suffering is prolonged and intense, even if it recovers but the more so if it dies from its wounds or starvation.

  2. Shooting with shotguns.
    Wounding occurs frequently because the killing power of shotguns decreases exponentially at ranges above 20 yards. The risk of wounding increases correspondingly even for a well aimed shot.

    Foxes are likely to be shot when moving which presents a more difficult target and less time to aim. When they are moving away from the shooter, which is frequently the case, foxes are especially vulnerable to being wounded as they will be shot at from behind.

    “Wounding Rates in Shooting Foxes” peer reviewed and published in Animal Welfare (May 06) concluded that “there was no (shooting) regime that had no probability of wounding, a factor that varied dramatically with gun-type, ammunition and range. ” Wounding rates were much higher than previously claimed – up to 50% in some cases.

    Scott Henderson reported: “ It is significant that the RSPCA consider that the cruelty involved in shooting foxes is such as to make it an unsatisfactory substitute for hunting and that they would prefer hunting (to which they are naturally opposed on ethical grounds) if its abolition were likely to lead to an increase in the amount of shooting” and concluded “

    We have no hesitation in saying that, unless very great care is taken, shooting may be an extremely cruel method of control”.

    Following the Scott Henderson Report, the RSPCA issued its own policy statement on hunting which, after minor adjustment, was adapted at its 1958 AGM. The RSPCA’s position was that: “Control of foxes was necessary, hunting was the least cruel method, cruelty, not ethics, was the primary consideration”. Nothing has occurred since to justify any change in the RSPCA’s position. 50 years later Lord Burns: “We are less confident that the use of shotguns particularly in daylight, is preferable (to hunting) from a welfare perspective”.

    The Phelps report 1997 (para.8.8.4) referred to the concerns of gamekeepers on “the increasing tendency for ‘illicit’ lamping carried out by irresponsible amateurs being a significant and rising source of cruelty due to the high proportion of foxes that are inexpertly shot and escape wounded”.

    Shooting is often opportune and indiscriminate. It may occur at any time of the year and may cause young to starve when vixens are shot. No distinction is made between fit and less fit animals - all are equally likely to be shot. Intensity of control is dependent on random factors, such as the attitude of individual landowners. In many areas foxes could be wiped out by indiscriminate shooting if farmers and landowners are denied the free service provided by hunts.

  3. Snaring and trapping.
    Conservancy Trust and gamekeepers recognise that cage traps are not effective for rural foxes.

    In either case, the fox is held captive in unnatural surroundings. It is likely to be severely distressed, which it cannot resolve through its natural mechanism of flight. When the fox is found in the trap it then has to be dispatched by a means which is available.

    Snares and traps are required by law to be inspected only every 24 hours. In practice there is only the trapper’s conscience that might ensure regular inspections actually happen.

    Lord Burns on Welfare: “We consider the use of snaring is a particular cause for concern”.

    Trapping and snaring are indiscriminate and pose severe risks to other species. A technical paper commissioned by Forest Enterprises, “TP23 Foxes and Forestry 1997”, quotes a MAFF trial where 155 foxes (54%) and 132 non target species (46%) were caught. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) recommends that snares should not be set in the vicinity of badger setts, houses, rights of way and where livestock are grazing. BASC warns of the danger where there are signs of deer or otter.

    Taken literally there are not many “vicinities” where snaring is suitable.

  4. Hunting with hounds (pre-ban).
    The fox is always hunted in territory with which it is familiar. It will know where to go to give itself the best chance of escape.

    For most of the duration of the hunt, the fox will be out of sight of the hounds and unaware it is the target quarry. For this time the fox will be moving at its own pace and not under pressure, apparently confident of its ability to escape. Foxes escape far more often than not – an average may be in the region of 1 in 6, but this will have regional and seasonal variations. By definition if a fox has been hunted before it will have escaped, so it is likely to have the expectation of escaping again. Moreover, it is questionable how far foxes can distinguish at least the initial stages of a hunt from the repeated disturbances which they are regularly faced with, unrelated to hunting.

    When, and if, a fox is caught it is killed almost instantaneously by the hounds as a result of either cervical dislocation or massive compressive trauma to the thorax. The weight of a fox-hound is approximately 75lbs and the weight of a fox about 15lbs. The fox-hound has a powerful jaw capable of killing on impact. There is no chance of the fox being wounded and escaping. Once the fox has been killed, the hounds may tear the already dead carcass apart, but this is irrelevant to suffering. What is relevant is that the fox does not have the mental capacity to imagine what it has never experienced before and will have no premonition of death.

    Prof. David Macdonald and others (Managing British Mammals 2000) suggest that the average duration of a hunt to be about 30 minutes. Surveys undertaken by the MFHA in 1997, 2003 and 2004 involving 33 hunts, 290 hunting days and 1048 fox finds showed an average length of chase of 27.5 minutes. 159 foxes were caught “above ground” . 30% of the kills were achieved within 5 minutes of the find.

    After a detailed analysis of evidence as to the behaviour of a fox during the chase the Phelps Report 1997 concluded “We feel unable to conclude at this time that the typical chase which results in a fox being caught and killed by hounds above ground, constitutes cruelty”.

    On any view hunting involves suffering over a far shorter period than trapping, or shooting other than when a clean kill is achieved.

    Hunting with hounds is organised in a controlled fashion over areas of adjoining properties. The majority of landowners and farmers within hunt areas are largely content to leave fox management to the hunt, at least in the first place. The GCT in their pamphlet “Fox Control in the Countryside 2000” reported that hunting was the method of control most favoured by farmers in two of their three research areas. In the third area hunting ranked second below the rifle, but in this area shooters and gamekeepers predominate and there is a low density of foxes. Further they found that on average “permission to hunt is sought but denied on 2% of allotted ‘country’ ” – put another way 98% is available. A National Survey of Hunts in England and Wales (Produce Studies February 2000) reported that of land available for hunting only 1% was not hunted by foxhounds because permission is denied.

    Note: “Land available” refers to land where hounds can hunt with freedom. Farmers, in liaison with hunt Masters, may impose restrictions on land “open” to followers, dependent on growing crops and ground conditions.

    Fox Control in the Countryside (GCT 2000) reported “ Several discretionary aspects of present-day foxhunting influence the number of foxes killed. The amount of land any pack attempts to hunt, the number of meets per season, the distribution of meets in relation to fox abundance, and the length of the hunting season all determine culling intensity - as do the decision as whether to dig out foxes that have gone to ground, and the proportion of the season run under early season rules. For many hunts, current choices on these aspects can only be interpreted as a policy of moderation, implying that the impact of hunting could be increased if desired.

    With regard to “mounted” hunting the importance of the horse as an essential “tool of the trade” to the huntsman is paramount. To be effective in catching foxes and controlling hounds the huntsman must be able to stay close to the hounds. The horse provides him with the means. Whether the followers are mounted or not is irrelevant.

    Burns made much of differentiating between “lowland” and “upland” hunting. Many MFHA packs have both lowland and upland areas in their hunt countries. Indeed they may well hunt from a lowland area to an upland area on the same day and vice versa, even on the same fox. In any case how can hunting be acceptable only at a certain altitude?

    In practice hunting is most limited by the suitability of land, whether from intensive farming, topographical features or areas close to urbanisation – safety being the key factor.

  5. Terrier Work (pre-ban).
    Terrier work can target a specific fox, and in practice is mostly used in response to specific local predation problems where hunting and/or shooting are neither suitable nor practical.

    Terrier work is not part of the sport of fox hunting and, by MFHA packs, it is carried out as a fox control operation solely at the request of farmers or game keepers. The names of terrier men employed by hunts are kept on a register, and they are issued with identity cards. They have to abide by a code of conduct and must possess a firearms certificate. Thus they are fully accountable.

    The terrier’s purpose is to locate the fox so that the terrier man can swiftly dig down to the fox and shoot it with a humane killer. Alternatively the fox may be either bolted into a net and dispatched or, as with the gun packs, into the open and shot using a shotgun. A fox that has been hunted to ground or that is pregnant, nursing cubs, injured or sick is unlikely to bolt. MFHA rules prohibit the bolting and re-hunting of a fox that has been hunted to ground in a natural earth. (MFHA Rule 12(2)).

    A dig may only take a few minutes, but it can take longer. Whilst the fox may experience stress, it is difficult to measure this against the stress involved in other methods, but overall the time involved is likely to be considerably shorter than in trapping or dying from wounds.

    Where shotguns are used, particularly with gun packs, terriers are essential to ensure the dispatch of wounded foxes.

    Terrier work is limited by the fact that a large proportion of the foxes that are either run to ground, or live below ground seek sanctuary in badger setts. It is illegal for anybody to interfere with, or enter a terrier into a badger sett (Badger Act 1992).

  6. Non-lethal methods.
    There are two non-lethal approaches to fox management that have been widely discussed and have been the subject of intensive research by the Game Conservancy Trust and the Central Science Laboratory (MAFF – now DEFRA). They are Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA) and fertility control. It is clear that deployment difficulties and non-target hazards make CTA a non-viable option for fox management in the UK. Because reproductive biology is so similar in all mammals the only safe approach to fertility control is to exploit the body’s immune system (immuno-contraception). To date no workable methodology has been found, but even so the welfare consequences of fertility control would require consideration.