How television helped scientists map the urban fox

In 2012 a Channel 4 series called ‘Foxes live: wild in the city’ was aired, with viewers asked to submit their sightings of foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in urban environments. In a two week window 15,700 records were collected and were used to provide the most up-to-date information on the distribution of urban foxes in the UK.

The study, led by Dr Dawn Scott at the University of Brighton, has recently been published in PLOS One and shows significant changes in urban fox distribution in the last quarter of a century. Compared to previous surveys where urban foxes were found to be scarce or absent in 65 cities across the country, the recent survey found that 91% of these cities now supported foxes and that they are more widespread across the UK than was previously believed. The historic north/south divide previously seen in urban fox distribution, with more recorded in cities in the south than in the north, was less pronounced in this current survey, although the reasons for this are unknown. Further work is needed to understand the ecological processes responsible for these colonisation events.

The findings of the study also show the importance of residential gardens to foxes, particularly those medium-sized gardens associated with low density housing built in the inter-war years. These habitats offer plentiful refuge sites and food resources for foxes, compared to large open public amenity grasslands.

Using television as a method to generate participation in wildlife surveying is novel and has the scope to collect large amounts of data from areas normally inaccessible due to land partition and private ownership. However, there are limitations to this approach, including the extent of coverage achieved and the difficulty in identifying true and false absences, due to the emphasis given to requesting positive sightings. Citizen science has become hugely important to wildlife surveying in recent years and media-based surveys such as this, despite its limitations, could be a new way of recruiting volunteers and collecting data.

Full paper available PLOS ONE 9(6):e99059 doi:20/1371/journal.pone.0099059

Photo Karen Arnold

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