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London, a playground for 10,000 urban foxes
by Staff Writers
London, England (AFP) Aug 27, 2013

Britain begins massive badger cull amid bovine TB fears
London, England (AFP) Aug 27, 2013 - A cull of thousands of badgers aimed at combating tuberculosis in cattle has begun in Britain, the National Farmers' Union said Tuesday, sparking anger among animal rights activists.

Some 5,000 of the black-and-white creatures are set to be shot under two pilot programmes in southwest England aimed at stopping the spread of TB in cattle.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) claims the controversial cull will save tens of thousands of cows from being slaughtered by limiting the spread of the disease from badgers.

But Britain's biggest animal charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), said many of the badgers would suffer a slow, painful death and that the cull would "not solve the problems caused by this devastating disease".

A dozen protesters have begun set up "Camp Badger" at Doniford Holt in Somerset, southwest England, vowing to stop the cull from taking place.

The activists have started patrolling the countryside in a bid to prevent marksmen from shooting at the animals.

"We are just normal, peaceful people who are outraged," said one protester who gave her name as Carla.

The environmental agency Natural England issued a licence allowing farmers to cull badgers in parts of Somerset and neighbouring Gloucestershire from June 1.

The pilot schemes were due to begin late last year but were delayed after condemnation by wildlife experts and a high-profile campaign led by Queen guitarist Brian May.

NFU president Peter Kendall said farmers recognised that the cull was divisive, but said it was necessary to combat a disease that has cost the taxpayer 500 million ($775 million, 580 million euros) over the last decade.

"We understand passions run high, but we'd ask (protesters) to remember not just the 5,000 badgers we're talking about culling in these two pilot areas, but the 38,000 cattle slaughtered," he said.

Some farming families have seen "many generations' work" destroyed by bovine TB, he added, which he said caused huge "emotional damage".

But the RSPCA raised fears that the methods used for the cull could be inhumane.

"It is very likely that many of them are lying injured, suffering a painful death," said Gavin Grant, the charity's chief executive.

"The most tragic thing is that this suffering is so needless. Science has shown that this cull is not the answer to bovine TB in cattle," he added, saying vaccination is a better means of tackling the epidemic.

But environment minister Owen Paterson insisted that no effective vaccine currently exists against bovine TB.

"We are working on new badger and cattle vaccines, but they are years away from being ready and we cannot afford to wait while TB gets worse," he said.

If successful, the government plans to roll out the cull in other rural areas hit badly by bovine TB.

To some they are a nuisance, even a danger. To others, London's 10,000 foxes are a delightful reminder that this concrete wilderness is teeming with wildlife.

The ruddy brown creatures seem out of place on the streets of the British capital -- but they are now so common that 70 percent of Londoners will have seen one slinking around in the last week, according to a recent survey.

For some city-dwellers, the red fox is the ultimate nightmare neighbour.

Many a Londoner will have had a night's sleep ruined by a fox's eerie screeching, only to wake and find their rubbish bins have been upturned. To add insult to injury, the scavenging fox will have left a stench of musk behind.

With their flashing eyes and razor-sharp teeth, the foxes have even been characterised as a menace.

There have been a spate of reports of babies attacked in their cots by foxes in recent years, though animal rights campaigners say the dangers are wildly exaggerated.

In June, London's mayor Boris Johnson reignited a long-running debate over whether the animals should be culled -- by jokingly suggesting that the traditional sport of fox hunting, outlawed in Britain since 2005, should be legalised in the capital.

"This will cause massive unpopularity and I don't care," said the colourful mayor, who said he was driven to speak out after his cat was apparently attacked by one of London's foxes.

"If people want to get together to form the fox hounds of Islington (a leafy north London borough), I'm all for it."

There are some 33,000 urban foxes in Britain and a third reside in the capital, according to research by Bristol University. A further 250,000 live in rural areas.

"They are adaptable animals which can eat many kinds of food and are by nature opportunists," said Calie Rydings of the animal charity RSPCA.

"So it is not surprising that they can be found in some towns and cities."

-- Fox lovers dismiss 'attack' tales --

With its large parks as well as thousands of houses with private gardens, London is a paradise for foxes.

They have been a part of the city landscape since the 1930s, when the urban sprawl began to encroach on their rural territory.

Despite the complaints, the foxes have mostly cohabited happily with their human neighbours.

Some 86 percent of people like the animals, according to a poll for Channel 4 TV. Another survey by Bristol University found that 10 percent of Londoners regularly feed them.

Britain has some of the highest-density fox populations in the world, according to Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at Bristol.

"Despite this, they cause remarkably few problems and the vast majority of householders like to see the foxes in their garden," he told AFP.

Yet every few years, a case hits the headlines that sparks an outcry against the foxes and a slew of calls for the animals to be culled or moved to the countryside.

In 2010, an east London mother spoke of her "living nightmare" after her nine-month-old twin girls were mauled by a fox as they slept in their cots.

In February, a one-month-old baby boy had his finger ripped off.

But animal charities say such attacks are extremely rare -- and in some case, foxes are not even the culprits.

Trevor Williams, director of the Fox Project charity, said he knew of three reported 'attacks' by foxes on babies in eleven years -- but claims one was actually carried out by the family's own dog.

"According to neighbours, the second also involved a dog. The third story was so full of contradictions, few people believe it," he told AFP.

Even if the stories are true, Williams claimed, the rate of attacks is nothing compared to the 250,000 people bitten by pet dogs each year in Britain.

The biggest threat, according to the RSPCA, is to the foxes themselves.

The average life expectancy of an urban fox is only two years, compared to four years in captivity.

Cars are responsible for 60 percent of their deaths. The rest die from illness or are killed by around 100 marksmen authorised to shoot foxes in London.

Three years ago, there was an uproar after a video emerged showing four masked men bludgeoning a fox to death with a cricket bat in a London park.

But it turned out to be a hoax. The perpetrators, film directors Chris Atkins and Johnny Howorth, had faked the killing in a bid to highlight the "ludicrous media coverage" of fox attacks.


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