Battle of the foxes

Guest author: Samuli Karppinen

“It was the fifth red fox for the same day”. “Foxes are everywhere”, I thought numerous times during my summer job time in the region of Inari. I was amazed at the number of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) present in the very northern part of Finland. Nearly every day and no matter where I went, I discovered foxes. I observed foxes close to settlements, and at the end of forest gravel roads. They were mainly lonely adults, but litters of the same year were common too. In addition, the number of red fox dens supported the idea that they succeed well in the northern part of Finland. The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is adapted to life in arctic areas. In Finland, arctic foxes have bred in the regions of Inari and Utsjoki. Arctic fox populations are similar in size to those in Sweden and Norway. Population size at the end of the 1800s was estimated to be 15 000 individuals. At present, the size of the population is estimated to be only 120 individuals. Despite yearly sightings of arctic foxes in Finland, it is nearly 20 years since the last confirmed arctic fox litter. During the summer I began wondering how red foxes influence the declining arctic fox population?

The Arctic fox in Polar Park Norway. © Sari Holopainen

The Arctic fox in Polar Park Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Intensive hunting in the early 1900s was the ultimate reason for the collapse of the Fennoscandian arctic fox population. Even though arctic foxes were protected in 1940, the population did not return to its earlier size. There are several probable causes. Due to changes in reindeer husbandry, arctic foxes cannot exploit the same number of carrions. Global warming causes problems to arctic species and the arctic fox does not stretch the point. Climate change affects snow cover, which reflects on the amount of lemmings. Lemmings are a vital food source for arctic foxes. Arctic fox brood and litter sizes are bigger when the amount of voles and lemming are at their highest point. In addition, global warming is raising the tree line to higher altitudes on the fells. This improves the survival of red foxes in the areas inhabited by the arctic fox.

The red and arctic foxes cannot inhabit the same territory. Research has uncovered that red foxes colonize and annihilate arctic fox dens. The red fox is very adaptable to different habitats and competes for food with the arctic fox. The striking winning picture of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 –competition underlines the interactions between the two species. The arctic fox is smaller than the red fox and loses the competition for food and habitats. Exploring the number of litters in the last 20 years, it can be seen that while red fox litters have grown, arctic fox litters have declined. The first idea to prevent the spreading of red fox populations is extensive hunting. At the beginning of the millennium, red foxes were intensively hunted in the fell areas of Enontekiö and Utsjoki under the Naali Life – project. The catch quotas appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestrywere fulfilledvery well by hunters each year. Unfortunately, the hunting alone and the short hunting period in particular had hardly any significance for the arctic foxes.The hunting probably only improved the living conditions of the remaining red foxes and the population might even have strengthened.

Fox cub in Inari. © Samuli Karppinen

Fox cub in Inari. © Samuli Karppinen

Finnish hunters are active in culling semi-predators, like red foxes. It seems that Finnish hunters actively cull semi-predators up to the height of the Arctic Circle. Active culling does not occur in the regions of Inari and Utsjoki, at least in the same scales.Reasons for this are clear: hunters are less enthusiastic, distances are long, the road network is sparse, and snow coveris thick. Maybe hunters of northern Finland don’t feel that culling is as important as hunters in southern Finland do. Red fox culling has to be continuous and intensive year after year for it to have positive effects on the arctic fox population. In 2015, the Finnish wildlife agency, as a part of Management of invasive Raccoon Dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) in the north-European countries project, started a project to cull the raccoon dog population in Lapland. A similar project, focused on the red fox, could be a good motivator for local hunters to cull the red foxes.

Research has indicated that lynx (Lynx lynx) regulate red fox populations. Foxes do not succeed in areas where lynx populations are abundant. One of the reasons for red fox success in the fell areas could be a lack of lynx. Unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect that lynx could be the arctic fox’s rescuer. The EU-Life project SEFALO+ (Save the Endangered Fennoscandian Alopex lagopus) has shown that a combination of actions, supplementary feeding, red fox culling, and protection of dens, could cease the decline of the arctic fox population and even enhance it. Nevertheless, I began wondering whether all these actions to save the arctic fox population in the Nordic countries will merely delay their extinction? Their population is small and genetic variation low. Diseases may heavily impact such a small population. Another possible threat to the arctic fox is the occurrence of escaped farm foxes on the mountain tundra. They can breed with wild arctic foxes, but hybrids do not survive in the wild. There are many problems and threats, which Fennoscandian arctic fox population have to face to avoid extinction.

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4 thoughts on “Battle of the foxes

  1. Interesting findings and something should definately be done for the benefit of arctic foxes and soon! Any references for this: “Research has indicated that lynx (Lynx lynx) regulate red fox populations. Foxes do not succeed in areas where lynx populations are abundant.” I wonder if this is true to the point that you can really talk about not succeeding? Also don’t you think that the lynx would probably be a threat to the arctic foxes too?

  2. Interesting findings! I hope that someone finds a way to help the arctic foxes. Any references on this “Research has indicated that lynx (Lynx lynx) regulate red fox populations. Foxes do not succeed in areas where lynx populations are abundant”. I don’t see this “do not succeed” happening in wildlife in my neighbourhood? On the other hand, don’t you think that the lynx might be a possible threat to the arctic foxes as well?

    • Here is a link to the reference The main idea of that study is that lynx, fox and voles form a network, where both lynxes and voles have an effect on fox populations. And I guess you have it right, lynx would probably be a threat also to the arctic foxes.

      • Thank you for the reference, very interesting. It does though say: “the notion that lynx can suppress red fox populations has been suggested (Ludwig 2007, Elmhagen et al. 2010, Pasanen-Mortensen
        et al.2013”. Suppressing and not succeeding are different things at least to me. However even suppressing is a welcome phenomen for many ground nesting birds 🙂

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