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Old Fox Types and Extinction

Having read many (far too many!) modern books on foxes without fail they all refer to the "little red fox" we know today; the long, short, tall and various colours. This is not, however, a true British fox with ancient roots going back into history. It is what I classed as a New Fox.

If you look at Medieval English texts you will see the fox depicted as overall grey or brown in colour with, in some cases, perhaps a lighter underside. Those are Old Fox types and it seems to be dogma amongst those zoologists that these never existed - because they have not studied the subject.

Over the decades I have worked with people at universities as well as people studying for PhDs and the usual method is to quote from previous works and then add your own viewpoint or theory to that. Basically, one person cribs from someone who cribbed from a person who before them had been cribbing from someone else.

When it came to work with exotic animals, I found people at universities practically jumping up and down at things I told them and sources quoted. To me this should have been common knowledge but I learnt early on that these people read technical papers and sometimes (if they cannot get abstracts) will read through an actual book. This bypasses the actual original sources of information they should be looking at, as that is too inconvenient. I have a big library of fox hunting books as well as old natural history books from the 18th-early 20th century. If I did not I would only be writing about the "little red dog" that became the main fox type by the early 1900s.

There were, as far as we know. three main types that can be classed as what I call Old Fox types:

The first was the Greyhound/Hill/Mountain Fox - tall, long legged and lived at higher altitudes and was a greyish colour. This fox seemed confined to mountains and hills although when it moved onto moors or grasslands its speed was so fast that it was termed a "Greyhound fox" - for obvious reasons. Brown flecked with grey may also have been a common colouring.

The second type was smaller than the Hill fox and more "robustly built" and was referred to as a mastiff or bulldog fox. I can find no illustrations of this type of fox but it was, like the Hill fox sturdy and "gave a good show of itself" when trapped - meaning it fought back against the hounds and hounds were severely injured or died from would inflicted by both foxes.

The Third type was the Cur (common) fox which was smaller and the most common seen and would, once again, be a uniform colour. The following early 1800s illustration shows a cur fox drawn from a mounted example and it looks far more robust that some modern foxes.

However, we know that in the 18th century Old Fox types were being hunted to the point of extinction. Therefore many thousands were imported each year to "restock" hunting countries (England was divided up into areas owned and considered private fox hunting areas or "countries"). France, Germany, Russia and other European countries where fox hunting was not an organised 'sport' sold foxes to dealers and the 19th century press report on news snippets such as "twenty foxes are being shipped by cart to Leeds.

By the late 19th century the Old Fox types were seen as facing extinction as the captive bred and protected red foxes took over countries both North and South. From the mid 19th century many of the 'great sportsmen' were making it clear that the Old Fox types were becoming extinct and their reaction was to still hunt them - killing breeding pairs as well as all the cubs found for 'enjoyment' and foxes to hunt. Buy some and release.

There is a major problem when it comes to the two illustrations above. Black leg markings which were not a trait of Old fox type. The two illustrated appear to be cross Old and New fox. Later large foxes I believe are just variations you find in New foxes and not indicators that Mountain foxes lived on into the 1940s - some may have survived until the late 19th century as Felis silvestris (I suspect those today are not the true wildcat as their survival was, according to 17th and 18th century writers, down to interbreeding with feral domestics) did by taking to higher ground where there was no hunting.

I believe that by 1900 the true Hill and Mastiff Foxes were gone and the Cur fox was probably bred out by the New foxes. I think it possible that there may have been more than three Old Fox types - each evolving for its specific habitat and the accounts of Old Hill foxes seem almost to describe a near coyote type.

The only way of finding out what an Old Fox type might have looked like is to find mounted specimens. However, we need to go back as far as we can with these to avoid misidentifying Old-New crosses.

My work begun in 1976 and is ongoing through the British Canid Historical Society today. I hope more will join us, so the research can continue and the information can be carried forward for future generations.

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