The mail have a shocking and emotive story about a fox chewing a baby’s head and pulling it away by it’s hand to be eaten, smashing it’s body on the door frame and ripping off a finger in the process. Frankly it’s horrific, but at the same time entirely tabloid. The Mail does the victim no justice by printing pictures of snarling beasts (a domestic cat could muster a similar snarl); photos and videos recycled from the last tragedy; sub heads like “A menace we must confront” (we have so many…); and vague amplifications like “For the third time in recent years” (what’s “recent”? three? twelve?). One of the reasons I feel annoyed at such hype is that the story has a personal element. I’ve just moved to Bromley where the attack was reported to have occurred, and am well aware of foxes. In fact it occured to me a few days ago that the number of foxes I was seeing would lead to some sort of serious friction and perhaps a new era of mythology like that which surrounds Wolves, and I guess the Mail is proving me right.
It turns out that the attack took place on a deprived estate in Lewisham – a completely different set of circumstances as I will explain… but let me tell you about foxes in Bromley. They are numerous but not as bad as Downham’s. I see them no less than one day in every five; much more than in Clapham where I lived near the Common. In Bromley, they are out and about in the daylight and they are brave; they will walk calmly across an open stretch of tarmac or along the top of a shed in plain sight. The previous owner of my house even invested in electronic fox scarers, which shorted out in the snow to my regret. The foxes are perfectly happy to be seen and to walk very near to where humans are standing. I’ve seen three near to the train station for example; once in the middle of a dark residential road; once by a well used exit route in the daylight; and most recently on the nearby main-road junction under street lights as people walked by.
They are well fed, with strong thick bodies. They are not wiry or thin half starved things, and with numbers up it would certainly follow that they are getting unusual amounts of food from somewhere. They are not just some normal part of urban life, as the Independent rushes to claim, not if the numbers are as high as my experience eyes suggests. Bromley council talk about keeping rubbish under wraps, but my neighbourhood is well kept and neat. Rubbish is cleared away, and I have greater faith in the people of Bromley that they are not so disproportionately messy as a group that this unusual level of fox sightings is explained by individual bad behaviour. I’m looking for a more structural explanation, something particular to the area and perhaps new to human experience.
So what unique challenges face humanity at the moment? The one that sticks to my mind is the faux-panic over climate change. That may seem statistically unreal but has a very real impact on our politics and daily lives including, importantly, how rubbish is dealt with in Bromley. Our Con-Dem run council operates an unholy system of varying collections that incentivises the storage of rubbish. Lewisham’s system, best I can tell, is a weekly collection with one extra bin. Bromley residents are provided little 8 x 4 x 9″ caddies that we are expected to empty into the “outside container” which can be collected weekly along with dry paper and plastic. The black bags are collected bi-weekly. The perverse incentives come from centuries of kitchen and bin design, and the investments of individual families in single large bins that are taken out once a or twice a week. The sudden introduction of three extra bins of varied sizes and shapes, and the relatively small caddies means that inevitably some food waste is going to be mixed with general waste in black bags and stored for an extra week in back gardens. The result is an opportunity for foxes to get in scavenge food-waste. Even if all waste went in the bins provided, in an area with thousands of such bins lids will be left off.
Historically, as wealth has boosted the population it has also boosted our investment in waste disposal. As populations have risen, eaten more calaries and become more wasteful our waste-management has stepped up to meet the demand. The kind of bizarre Heath Robinson solutions councils are imposing today is the first time in history that we have, deliberately, made bins smaller and waste disposal more difficult rather than progressively easier. Meanwhile we are still, just about, growing in terms of wealth and population, I can’t think of another time that this these two trends will have moved in opposite directions.