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Cunning as a fox?

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Cunning as a fox?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Nosy neighbour © Sam Hobson/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The introduction of red foxes to the southern hemisphere was an ill-conceived ecological hospital pass that New Zealand narrowly dodged. However New Zealand acclimatisation societies made sure that many other unwelcome mammals made it to our shores which have followed the foxes lead in decimating antipodean wildlife.  

Sam Hobson's picture of an inquisitive fox on the suburban streets of Bristol has captured the hearts of many who have visited our Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is an iconic part of the English landscape and one a small number of British mammals that have thrived in the urban landscapes of cities such as Bristol.

These brush tail foxes live happily in a variety of environments whether it be forests, mountains, grasslands, deserts and more recently - bustling cities. Its wide diet and remarkable resourcefulness has led it to spread throughout large parts of Europe, America, Euasia and North Africa, though its introduction into southern climes - namely Australia - has proved to be disasterous.

And it's only pure luck that New Zealand dodged its successful introduction.  

The success of these predators is linked to their unique biology.  Red foxes are highly adaptable, inquisitive and will eat almost anything, from small mammals, reptiles and birds, to fruit and plants. Accordingly the species has the greatest geographic range of all members of the Carnivora order - a group of approximately 280 fanged and furred meat-loving mammals ranging from 25 gram weasels to 5000 kg elephant seals. 

In English cities red foxes make a rich living off the refuse of human society, however these benefits pale in comparison to those gained by the species from being transported by humans across the globe to a land down under.  In the 1800s European colonists of the antipodes, those large lumps of land subsequently named Australia and New Zealand, pined for reminders of home.  As a result they keenly followed the trends of the day in attempting to “enrich” the flora and fauna of new and unfamiliar lands by introducing familiar plants and animals from home. 

In Australia, acclimatisation society groups first introduced the red fox in the mid-1800s for the purposes of sport hunting.  However the introduction of foxes to Australia was an ecological disaster with the adaptable predators spreading quickly and causing catastrophic declines in Australia’s small mammal, reptile and bird populations.  Today the red fox, charismatic in its home range, is listed one of the world’s worst invasive species with over 7 million individuals in Australia alone and little hope of removing it from the Australian landscape.

Across the Tasman Sea colonists arriving to Aotearoa New Zealand had an equal fervour for the acclimatisation of plants and animals from home and it is only by pure luck that foxes did not become established. Indeed in 1864 a pair of red foxes was introduced to the South Island by Mr Charles Prince of Dunedin.  Thankfully they failed to establish as a successful introduction would have spelled a rapid end for large ground nesting birds such as kiwi, whio or blue duck and kea just to name a few.  In fact the New Zealand Government recognised the threat posed by foxes early and banned their importation under the ‘Protection of Certain Animals Act 1861’.  Sadly this was not driven by any recognised need to protect New Zealand unique fauna, rather the potential threat posed to lambs and other livestock.

Hunting portrait of two men, 1940.

Hunting portrait of two men, 1940.

Collins, Tudor Washington. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Still New Zealand acclimatisation societies were incredibly active between the mid-1800s and 1900s liberating a broad range of animals. Driven largely by sentiment and a gun-toting desire for game, the acclimatisation societies brought everything from antelopes to zebras, partridges to kangaroos to our shores though despite their best efforts most of these species failed to thrive.  Certain species, like the mallard duck and brush tail possum, only began to boom after great perseverance from these societies which conducted a number of releases over decades.

Helvetia Ostrich farm showing aspects of farming, plucking, dressing and finished products. PH-NEG-B840

Helvetia Ostrich farm showing aspects of farming, plucking, dressing and finished products. PH-NEG-B840

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

It is only in the past six decades that we have discovered the folly of these poorly thought out introductions.  Each year, rats, possums and stoats alone kill an estimated 25 million native birds each year, and that’s not to mention the scourge of ferrets, hedgehogs, and weasels that join the slaughter.  New Zealand has 2.5 million feral cats killing an estimated 100 million birds each year and also carrying toxoplasmosis which can infect humans.  Unfortunately we are only talking about predation here.  Introduced browsers, including possums, continue to destroy our remaining native forests and threaten our agricultural productivity.  

As a result 80% of our 168 native bird species, and an unknown number of reptiles and invertebrates are faced with extinction, despite the $60-80 million that the Government throws into pest control each year. You see, like red foxes, New Zealand’s successful introduced mammals are highly adaptable, something that has made them supremely successful in New Zealand’s diverse landscape and incredibly difficult to eradicate.  Let us hope that the vision of predator free New Zealand by 2050 is one that can be achieved for the benefit of all New Zealanders, human and non human.


  • Post by: Matt Rayner

    Matt Rayner is a conservation biologist who specialises in the study of avian behaviour, ecology and evolution. With a particular interest in the Pacific seabirds, he works on closely with conservation and advocacy groups in Australasia and the Pacific through his role as Curator of Land Vertebrates and as a research associate of the University of Auckland. Read Matt's profile.