Jenny McCallum of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) casts light on the lives of our foxes in winter

As we settled into the second lockdown, many of us have been watching the changing season more closely than usual.

It might be tempting to think of the coming winter as a quiet time for wildlife watching, but of course there are highlights to look out for, and one of them is the rich orange flash of a fox.

Winter is in fact the most active time of year for foxes – change is afoot in their family groups as their breeding season approaches, and they’ll more often be seen in the daylight.

Foxes hunt alone, so that’s how you’ll most often see them, but in fact they live in groups of up to seven.

This includes the parents, called the dominant pair, plus a few of their offspring.

Over the autumn, this year’s cubs have reached maturity, which leads to what we might think of as teenage behaviour.

Relationships within the group get increasingly tense, and competition over food and status leads to fights, which can be very noisy.

In November things come to a point where it’s time for the cubs to strike out on their own.

They’ve grown their thicker winter coats and are ready to go and establish a new territory.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the male cubs are the first to leave. There is hot competition for territory, which leads to more fights. Sadly, many foxes are killed on the roads in this season while they’re exploring unfamiliar places.

Some of the cubs, mostly females, will stick around with the dominant pair, although as a payoff they will have to help out with next year’s litter.

As we head into December, the build up to the mating season begins in earnest.

The dominant pair actively defend their territory, while this year’s cubs try to establish their own. The first line of defence is to leave their musky scent around the borders to warn off intruders. If that doesn’t work, they resort to barking and fighting.

The size of a pair’s territory depends on the habitat: in urban areas it could be as little as 0.2 km2, while in remote areas a single family group might roam across an area of 40km2.

Banbury Cake:

The female will start to look for a potential den, or earth – a safe, protected spot where she’ll rear her cubs. In towns an earth might be under a garden shed or on a railway embankment. In the countryside, old rabbit warrens or badger setts are favourites.

As December progresses, the male will start to follow the vixen around closely, almost not leaving her side as he waits for her to come into season. So if you’re lucky enough to spot a roaming couple in the next few weeks, you’ll know they’re getting ready to mate.

And if you don’t see many foxes this winter, you may well hear them. Foxes’ most distinctive calls at this time of year are the iconic triple bark and the wailing scream.

The triple bark is the dominant male declaring his territory to neighbouring foxes – and the rest of us as well!

That blood-curdling scream might not sound romantic to us, but this is essentially the vixen’s courting call, letting the male know she’s ready to mate. It can sound very human and has often resulted in calls to the police.

So the next time you see a fox, take a moment to wonder whether you’ve come across an established adult or a new pretender. And if you don’t see one, listen out!

See bbowt.org.uk