Understand mid-winter fox behaviour

In the bleak mid-winter, foxes are busy mating! Here's how to interpret breeding season behaviour.

Illustrations by Stuart Jackson Carter
Illustrations by Stuart Jackson Carter

On January and February nights you may be woken by alarming blood curdling screams – a sign that the fox mating season is here again. The shrieking is usually vixens in heat (they’re only receptive for 20 days), but you should also listen out for the ‘hup-hup-hup’ triple-barks of dog foxes, or males.

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Though foxes can be vocal year-round, they’re far more so now and the calls seem to travel farther at night in the still winter air. Dog foxes roam widely to locate females to mate with, often straying outside their familiar home ranges – sadly, you might notice an increase in roadkill at this time of year.

Wandering foxes are also less likely to visit places where they are accustomed to being fed, so your garden may well feel strangely fox-free for a while. When a dog fox finds a receptive vixen, he will stay close by – if you spot a pair of foxes in January, this is probably the explanation. Also look out for aggressive encounters between rival dog foxes.

Here are the four main types of behaviour you may encounter:

1. Fighting

In the mating season you may see rival males chase each other, make open-mouth threat displays or rear up to fight. At other times scuffles tend to involve cubs (May to July) or fully grown young and adults (September to November).

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2. Shadowing

Males trail receptive females to ensure they don’t miss their partner’s brief window of peak receptivity, which can last just 72 hours.

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3. Nuzzling

As the female’s oestrus (ovulation date) nears, the male may nuzzle or groom her. He often also lifts his tail high in excitement.

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4. Coupling

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After the male’s initial approaches are rebuffed, mating takes place several times. It can be hasty,
or the pair may lock for half an hour or more.

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