Monday, 28 September 2015

Urban red foxes (Vulpes vulpes L.) in Finland: A historical perspective

Volume 124, April 2014, Pages 109–117


Red foxes have probably been present near Finnish cities since the Middle Ages.
Urban visits by red foxes have been documented since the late 19th century.
Anthropogenic food sources probably attracted red foxes to towns and cities.
Some urban fox observations concerned escaped pets.
Persecution may have delayed establishment of breeding urban red fox populations.


Urbanization of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is usually considered a recent phenomenon, originated in southern England in the 1930s, and having only thereafter spread, or independently originated, elsewhere. In this paper we show that in Finland red foxes have probably been hunted in the vicinity or outskirts of towns at least since the 18th century, and that foxes have been well-known (although unwelcome) visitors in urban areas at least since the late 19th century. One hunter captured 56 red foxes in a small hilly area in the outskirts of the city of Turku, SW Finland, in 1743–1747. In the leading newspaper of Turku urban or periurban visits by red foxes were reported 15 times in 1890–1950, and in 1890–1920 local newspapers in Finland reported urban observations of red foxes in three of the nine cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants at the onset of the First World War. In several instances foxes were reported to have preyed upon domestic fowl. Several fox reports concerned apparently tame individuals. Red foxes were probably attracted to urban areas by the low hygiene levels and human-dependent fauna associated with urban agriculture. We found no direct evidence for reproduction of foxes within urban areas in the study period. Although urban areas were apparently included in the feeding territories of many foxes, active persecution probably prevented establishment of local urban populations.


  • Red fox;
  • Vulpes vulpes;
  • Urbanization;
  • Finland;
  • History;
  • Anthropogenic food sources

1. Introduction

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes L.) is nowadays the most widespread wild carnivore in the whole world, and likewise the most common urban carnivore in Australia, Europe, Japan, and North America ( Gloor et al., 2001, Harris and Rayner, 1986, Macdonald, 1987 and Soulsbury et al., 2010). Red fox has been characterized as one of the most adaptable of the wild carnivores ( Bateman & Fleming, 2012). Its success in urban areas probably derives from its ecological and behavioural flexibility. As a medium-sized omnivore, which is both an agile predator and scavenger ( Macdonald, 1987 and Selva, 2004), it can effectively colonize new habitats. Moreover, it has no specialized habitat requirements, and has a high reproductive output ( Harris, 1986 and Macdonald, 1987). McKinney (2002) considered foxes as urban adapters, or species that occur in managed suburban or periurban habitats and often exploit human subsidized foods. Urban foxes are nowadays well publicized and for several reasons actively researched in many countries (e.g. Contesse et al., 2004, Soulsbury et al., 2010 and Wilkinson and Smith, 2001). An important reason for this is the fact that people who live in urban environments often have a great appreciation of wildlife living around them ( McKinney, 2006).
Colonization of urban areas by red foxes is usually considered a recent phenomenon, first recorded in southern England during the 1930s, and having only thereafter spread, or independently originated, elsewhere within the species’ range (Harris, 1986 and Soulsbury et al., 2010). Harris (1977) claimed that “the occurrence of foxes in suburbia is a unique British phenomenon”. However, if red foxes are such great adapters, one might predict the phenomenon to have been already in the 1970s and 1980s much more widespread. This seems indeed to have been the case. Foxes were observed in Melbourne already during the 1940s (Soulsbury et al., 2010), suburban Stockholm (Sweden) in the 1960s (Lindström, 2001), in Brussels in the early 1970s (Beck, 2013), and in Switzerland urban fox populations have increased rapidly since 1985 (Gloor et al., 2001). Soulsbury et al. (2010) reported no urban fox populations in Finland, although urban red fox populations have existed in the country at least since the 1980s (Lappalainen and Vuorisalo, 1996 and Liukko, 1990). The species belongs to the native Finnish fauna, present in the archaeological refuse fauna already during Early Stone Age (Ukkonen, 1993). During the Mediaeval period red fox furs were important items in Finnish fur trade and foxes were actively hunted (Melander, 1952). Nowadays red fox occurs in all parts of Finland, with population densities higher in the south than in the north (Kauhala, 1996).
Although interest in the ecological effects of urbanization is growing rapidly (e.g. Baker et al., 2000, Gaston, 2010 and Trewhella and Harris, 1988), the details of urbanization processes are still poorly understood (Evans et al., 2010 and Vuorisalo, 2010). Evans et al. (2010) defined three distinctive stages in the urbanization process. Arrival stage concerns initial dispersal of an animal species to an urban area. The numerical probability of dispersal to urban areas is increased by high population densities in surrounding rural habitats and good dispersal ability of the species. The second stage, adjustment to urban habitats, concerns the processes through which individuals cope with their new environment. Adjustment stage may require changes e.g. in behaviour, habitat selection and life history traits. The third and final stage of urbanization concerns spread of populations that have adjusted to urban environments. In practice this requires high reproductive rates and good dispersal ability of the newly urbanized populations.
In this paper we investigate the presence of red foxes in and near Finnish urban settlements from an environmental historical perspective. An earlier study indicated that red foxes may have visited Finnish towns and cities earlier than usually presumed (Vuorisalo et al., 2001). A possible factor that may have attracted foxes to urban areas was traditional urban agriculture with its abundant direct and indirect food sources for foxes and other omnivores (Lahtinen, 2005 and Vuorisalo et al., 2003). On the other hand, also changing human attitudes towards wildlife may have historically contributed to urbanization processes (Evans et al., 2010 and Vuorisalo et al., 2003). Persecution of urban vertebrates by humans was apparently widespread in the late 19th century and early 20th century Finnish town and cities (Vuorisalo et al., 2001 and Vuorisalo et al., 2003). Reduction in hunting or persecution pressure may lead to shifts in tolerance of humans (Fuller, Destefano, & Warren, 2010), and the same is true for active feeding of urban birds and mammals that is nowadays quite common in many areas. In North America, bird feeders are the primary food attractants for black bears in the vicinity of residential areas during spring and early summer (Curtis & Hadidian, 2010).
In this paper we review evidence for the three stages of urbanization as defined by Evans et al. (2010) in the Finnish urban areas based on archaeological studies and historical documents from the Mediaeval period to approximately 1950, when keeping of domestic animals in towns and cities more or less ceased due to strict hygiene standards and changes in land use. Due to possible importance of human attitudes, we also review changes in fox attitudes based on legislation and persecution history.