In our basement kitchen on a winter morning, not long after we'd moved to Bristol, I looked up and saw a fox lying on the skylight, right above me. It was curled in a tight circle, muzzle on brush, fast asleep on the warm glass – one of those magical images that stay with you for life.
That was the first of many encounters with foxes around the city, spotted in car headlights, under street lamps, by moonlight and window glow, hurrying along pavements and through gardens. I discovered that Bristol is one of Britain's foxiest cities, colonised since the 1940s. In 1994, it had one of the highest densities of urban foxes in the world, before the deadly onset of mange a few years later. Stories abounded of foxes met in kitchens and garages. A friend photographed one reclining in his deckchair. I longed to find out more about these suave animals who were intertwining their lives so unconcernedly with ours.
There are several groups with their nose in the fox world in this area. One is the University of Bristol's Mammal Research Unit, which since 1978 has been carrying out research into these enterprising city-dwellers – their social and reproductive behaviour, their diseases, genetics and territories.
Another is Avon Wildlife Trust, Britain's first urban wildlife trust, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Its community action officer, Joe McSorley, manages the often fraught relationship between man and the wild in Bristol. "I know some foxy places," he says. "We'll meet in the Golden Lion at 8.30pm. Just near Horfield Prison. Wrap up warm."
It feels odd to be walking the streets under the forbidding walls of the prison, looking for an animal that so strongly symbolises freedom and self-determination. "There are probably a quarter of a million foxes in Britain," McSorley says, "and maybe one in 10 is an urban fox. Bristol itself could have several thousand." But why would a noisy, busy, human-filled city attract a fox? "Well, there's lots of food and lots of cover. Big gardens, too, and plenty of places to shelter. And more wild spaces than you'd think – bits of open grassland, scrub, woods, parks. And allotments, which offer just about all of those things."
Urban foxes are no different from their rural counterparts. They only use earths – underground burrows – when giving birth to and rearing their cubs. During the day they lie up in bramble patches, thick grass, hedgerows, scrub or woods, or in a shed or other enclosure – anywhere sheltered, out of sight and easy to escape from. Telltale signs are trails or avenues through the undergrowth, and flattened patches where the fox has lain.
Open grassland areas and hedgerows are favourite hunting grounds. Foxes' natural food ranges from ground-nesting birds and eggs, mice and rabbits to earthworms, moth larvae and beetles (that's why you'll see them digging in your garden, though they can also be misled by the smell of blood- and bone-based fertiliser). They'll eat apples, blackberries and other fruit in season. But though foxes are not scavengers, they are opportunists. If hungry and the food is available, they won't turn up their noses at burgers, chips, kebabs, fish batter.
McSorley works an allotment behind Horfield Prison, one strip in a huge patchwork of parsnips, garlic, potatoes and beans. We unlock the gates and pass through into a world of quarter-tones and shadows. A full moon sails overhead, spreading just enough light to guess at shapes – garden sheds, pathways, the shimmering skin of a polytunnel, bramble patches and grass tussocks veined with fox trackways.
"There! See?" McSorley's hand grips my arm and his head-torch shines out along the path. Two emerald spots of brilliantly coruscating light twinkle back at us. A glimpse of a sharp mask of a face under a pair of pricked ears, the faint swish of a body against grasses, and the fox is gone.
It's tempting to anthropomorphise the sly, dapper-looking urban fox; to invest him with a top hat, cigar and patent leather dancing pumps. From there it's a short step to wanting to be his friend, to cuddle and feed him. That's a bad idea, says McSorley. "It's best to leave urban foxes alone. They don't need feeding or love – just plenty of personal space."
But aren't foxes a bit of a nuisance, a bit of a danger? "UK foxes don't carry rabies. Most waste boxes are sealed these days, so foxes rarely disturb or tip over rubbish bins like they used to. They might take your guinea pig or pet rabbit from a box left outside, but they probably won't bother with trying to get through wire netting. They'll rarely take on a full-grown cat, never a dog."
The fox in the allotment wasn't my last vulpine encounter of the evening. Heading home after saying goodnight to Joe, I was approaching my own front door when a fox came out of the shadows. It trotted lightly in front of me up the garden path and sat down on my doorstep. The fox regarded me for a moment or two, then turned its head, attracted by some more interesting smell or sound. A quick movement and it was across the lawn and through the hedge – out of sight, but far from out of mind.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.