Urban foxes, which have been responsible for a number of attacks on young children, are apparently being trapped in major cities and dumped in the countryside.
Roger Gent, chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association (BFREPA), says he has seen urban foxes at large on farmland, despite denials by local authorities that they are being rounded up and dumped in the countryside.
"You can tell they are urban foxes. It is easy to see the difference because urban foxes are scavengers. They look completely bewildered in the countryside; they don’t know how to hunt, they are just completely lost away from the houses where they normally scavenge for food."
Pressure has been increasing on local authorities following a number of disturbing attacks by city foxes. In the most recent incident a four-week-old baby boy was attacked in his home in south east London.
The child, Denny Dolan, underwent an operation to reattach one of his fingers following the attack. He also had stitches in wounds on his face after his mother reportedly found the fox dragging the baby from his bedroom.
Public reaction to the attack resulted in an intervention from the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who said more needed to be done to deal with what he said was the growing problem of urban foxes.
"They may appear cuddly and romantic but foxes are also a pest and menace, particularly in our cities," he said.
"This must serve as a wake-up call to London's borough leaders, who are responsible for pest control. They must come together, study the data, try to understand why this is becoming such a problem and act quickly to sort it out."
Londoners have become increasingly concerned about foxes. In a previous incident in 2011 a five-year-old boy awoke to find a fox in his third floor bedroom in Hackney.
The animal had apparently got into the house through an open window and crept upstairs. The previous year nine-month-old twins Isabella and Lola Koupparis were attacked in their cots in Hackney. Both girls underwent surgery at the Royal London Hospital.
In 2003 a four-year-old girl was bitten on the arm when a fox managed to sneak into her bedroom in Tufnell Park and in 2002 a 14-week-old baby was attacked in his home in Dartford, Kent. The child sustained four puncture wounds on his head.
The RSPCA insists that foxes are nervous of people and normally attempt to avoid contact with both adults and children.
It says a healthy fox would only attack someone if provoked. London Wildlife Trust says that attacks are very rare, although it did say following the latest attack that the trust recognised the impact the incident had had on the family involved and it hoped that the child concerned made a quick and full recovery.
There have been calls for a cull to reduce the number of foxes in our cities and towns, but London Wildlife Trust said that any cull would be "extremely controversial, complex and expensive to implement."
It said a cull was also unlikely to be effective in the long-term, as it would fail to address the underlying issues that were causing an increase in the London fox population and bringing foxes into closer proximity to people.
It said that people needed to change their behaviour. People should not be feeding foxes, for example. Residents also needed to ensure that food waste was put in closed, secure bins, beyond the reach of scavenging foxes.
"Taking simple measures like these will ensure foxes rely on natural prey, such as rats, and the reduction in the overall amount of food available should lead to a fall in fox numbers,” said the trust. "This is the most effective way to control the urban fox population - and a solution that can be achieved without resorting to a widespread cull."
Roger Gent said that it was probably resistance to culling foxes that had resulted in the practice of rounding up animals in the city and transporting them to the countryside.
"I don't think it is a practice that is increasing; it is a continuation of something that has been happening for some time. Local councils deny it, but we know it happens.
The urban foxes are trapped in cities and towns, loaded into cattle boxes, then driven out to rural locations, where they are released. I have seen them, myself, on a friend’s farm in Wales. These foxes look completely bewildered because there is not a house in sight,” said Gent.
He said that problems were obviously increasing in urban areas where some people were feeding the foxes and others were making it easy for the animals to scavenge through household waste.
"The foxes are having large litters and numbers are increasing. Rather than culling the animals, the foxes are being trapped and then dumped out in the countryside where the foxes don’t know what to do. They are used to scavenging; they don’t know how to hunt."
Whilst the urban fox’s instincts may have been honed to live on household waste, Gent said that releasing them into the countryside could still present a problem for free range egg producers. “Chickens will definitely be the easiest form of prey for them. They are pretty stationery for a fox. It is a bit different from trying to take lambs running around the Welsh hills," said Gent.
With the attacks on children in London increasing people’s fears about the threat from urban foxes, pressure is likely to increase on local authorities to come up with a solution. Rather than dumping the animals on other people's doorsteps, in an environment that is completely alien to animals that have grown up in urban areas, Roger believes that the authorities should deal with the problem where it has arisen.