Wildlife Photographer of the Year: foxes in focus
Images of exotic, elusive and endangered creatures are submitted to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition every year, but it’s the familiar red fox that is a firm favourite among entrants from around the world.
Foxes can be found on every continent except Antarctica, with the red fox being the most common and widespread of the species.
These versatile animals are well equipped to adapt quickly to extreme and changing environments, from bustling cities to the Arctic, and arid desert climates.
The thrill of the hunt
Lean, agile and lightning fast, capturing a fox in action is a challenge for even the most attentive photographer.
‘Anticipating the pounce – that was the hardest part,’ says Connor Stefanison of his image, Lucky pounce. The fox had been scouting this area of Yellowstone National Park, pacing back and forth before fixated on a patch of ground, giving Connor just enough warning.
When it launched into the air, Connor got his shot. When it landed, the fox got its meal.
Acute senses, especially hearing, allow foxes to hunt effectively in different environmental conditions. This composite of images was also taken in Yellowstone National Park and shows how the animal’s precision is combined with a well-rehearsed routine. After locating a target, it will leap high enough to punch through the deep snow; sometimes remaining upside-down for several seconds after landing.
More often than not these hunts are successful, but the vole this fox was after made a lucky escape this time.
While foxes hunt and forage alone, they come together to mate and raise their young. Fox cubs (or kits) are born in spring and families remain together until the autumn. After a couple of months of feeding her cubs with regurgitated food, a vixen will start to deliver live prey to her young to help develop their hunting skills.
When this female emerged from among the trees, her cubs bounded over, enthusiastically greeting their tired mother with caring nibbles. ‘There was so much affection between them,’ Ashleigh recalls.
Predator and prey
The effects of climate change have seen red fox populations move northwards, into the tundra habitat of the smaller Arctic fox. As their territories increasingly overlap, intensifying competition for food, red foxes are beginning to dominate.
From a distance, Don Gutoski could see a red fox chasing something across the snow. As he got closer, he realised the prey, now dead, was an Arctic fox. Three hours later, finally sated, the red fox picked up what remained of the animal and dragged it away to store for a future meal.
In the winter, the fierce competition for food isn’t only amongst fox species. Stefan Huwiler was photographing golden eagles in the Sinite Kamani National Park in Bulgaria when he was surprised to see a red fox approach a feeding eagle and attempt to snatch its meal.
However, the eagle was undaunted, Stefan says, ‘after a short, fierce spat, the fox fled with the eagle literally hard on its heels’.
Fox in the city
In the UK, red foxes have adjusted well to urban life since they began to move into British cities in the 1940s. Britain has a complex relationship with the red fox and they can be a polarising character in the communities they inhabit.
Based on a citizen science initiative, researchers from the University of Brighton now estimate that the number of foxes in urban Britain has increased five-fold since the 1990s to 150,000.
However, while the population appears to be growing rapidly, experts believe that foxes are simply more visible than they were previously, as they become bolder and more accustomed to living in close proximity to humans.
To frame his image of a local fox, minute against the backdrop of London, Neil Aldridge dangled his camera out of a window and waited for the regular visitor to appear.
Sam Hobson, on the other hand, spent months befriending a family of foxes in Bristol before they allowed him close enough to capture his image, Nosy neighbour.
Sam says ‘If I can spark an interest in the wildlife on people's doorsteps, perhaps that will lead to them caring more generally about conservation and environmental issues.'