What’s in a name? The Fox Eradication Taskforce has now been buried, without a fox or a fox den to show for itself. In 11 years of fox hunting by spotlighting, trapping, poisoning, or photography this $50-million fox-less caravan is moving on.

But how can that be? How could so many thousands of reported sightings of foxes not produce any success? Were some (or all) the sightings mis-identifications, or were they caused by herd hysteria; a human response to constant fox media in those heady days when dead foxes were turning up at Cooee (1999), at St Helens (2001), at Longford (2001), at Symmons Plains (2001) and at Lilydale (2002), and of course smothered in blow-by-blow fox media… in all three Tasmanian daily papers?

So here’s the re-iterated storyline on how Tasmania acquired so many foxes and how the appearance of the dead-foxes in Tasmania was being interpreted by an affiliate financially linked to DPIPWE’s Fox Program.

‘The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) has wreaked havoc on mainland Australia’s environment and agricultural production since its introduction in the 1870s. Over the same period Tasmania has remained virtually fox-free, allowing its unique biodiversity to remain relatively pristine. In September 2001, a fox was shot in northern Tasmania and soon after the remains of another was discovered [fox skin sent by post in July 2001]. Since then, road kill foxes have been discovered in Burnie (October 2003), near Devonport (February 2006) and near Conara in the Tasmanian midlands (August 2006). These foxes are believed to have been part of an introduction of between 12 and 19 individuals of unknown sex to the island since 1998. If deliberate, this introduction must rank as one of the greatest acts of environmental vandalism perpetrated in this country.’ [Reference: Research Flier 6 – August 2006 Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra]

Apart from significant errors in fact in this Research Flier, there was no scientific evidence to support their claim that ‘these foxes are believed to have been part of an introduction of between 12 and 19 individuals of unknown sex to the island since 1998’. 

Despite the Tasmanian Government trying on three separate occasions to introduce the same ‘Fox Plot’ conspiracy story with the media, there was simply no basis that this ‘deliberate… environmental vandalism’ had taken place.

So how did the local fox storyline get so shockingly misrepresented?

By 2003 Tasmanians were baying for proof… a fresh dead fox. Even local reporter, Rohan Wade used his newspaper columns to call on the Government’s fox program to produce a dead fox themselves to convince a sceptical public.

In October 2003, Mr Wade’s wish seemed to be answered; a dead fox was recovered close to the Burnie CBD and Port, in the gutter on the Bass Highway! The infamous known ‘fox in the box’ became front-page news accompanied by a large colour photo of Minister Bryan Green holding up a box full of dead fox. Days of intrigue followed – Where did this fox come from? How did it meet its demise? When would the full story be revealed?

After months of delay, the final conclusion was that the relationship of this fox to earlier dead fox remains found in Tasmania were ‘inconclusive’ and no data on its relationship to fox populations in Melbourne was ever provided.

The origin of this fox became known years later, but never revealed by the taskforce. The ‘fox in the box’ was another dead fox dumped on the roadside by humans. It was not a resident of Burnie but another imported fox that was bashed to death and dumped. Within days of the ‘fox in the box’ incident, an old, dis-credited photograph of a live fox allegedly taken near Wynyard appeared on the front page of The Advocate - ‘Gotcha’ - and over the following days the newspaper ran a series of stories linked to the three year old photo and ‘recent fox sightings’.

In late 2003 this dead fox gave Tasmania’s fox hunters another good run for their money and the chase was on again in earnest. Burnie was scoured for foxes to no avail. 

On the back of the ‘fox in the box’ and the days of fox media in The Advocate, the fox sighting reports in the north-west increased.

But by November 2004 the sighting were again ebbing, the Secretary of the Primary Industry Department was encouraged; he put this down to the success of the 1080 baiting program. Mr Evans wrote to the Mercury newspaper highlighting the declining trends in sightings reports; the end of foxes in Tasmania was nigh.

But no! The year of the fox was yet to come – 2006! Three fox incidents – (1) Lillico in February, (2) Old Beach in May and (3) Glen Esk in August - a sensational re-emergence of this varmint from Victoria. Official guestimates of foxes numbers in Tasmania were made and freely shared with a hungry media – 50 foxes, maybe 300 or 400 foxes… the media reported foxes were now ‘established’; there was no doubt, they were here and they were breeding.  The rubbery-guestimates were apparently based on the three ‘road killed foxes’ since 2003 – Burnie, Lillico and Glen Esk. Yet no vehicle driver wished to claim they had run down a fox on a Tasmanian road.

But this story gets more bizarre than that! These road kills all turn into dumpings; the Burnie 2003 ‘road-kill’ fox – imported fox dumped and conceded by 2009;  Lillico ‘road kill’ fox cub – claimed to be shot by a rabbit shooter and dumped by the road side, conceded in 2009; and the Glen Esk ‘road kill’ fox - allegedly killed somewhere else and dumped by the road side, conceded in 2009.
Perhaps that’s enough for any Tasmanian politician to get their heads around… more to come.

By David Obendorf, Hobart-based veterinary pathologist

• Jack Jolly: Tasmania is a very special place, here

• From Undergraduate Media ...

Hunter S Thompson: A Death in the Family

  “Throughout the centuries , the red fox has left a record symbolizing cunningness, sagacity, and courage…. It has left a mark on the pages of literature and legend, even to modern slang, which applies the name to sly, sharp-witted people: for example. ‘ He is a foxy fellow’, or ‘He out-foxed me’.”  -                      New Hunter’s Encyclopedia. p. 147

  Well, folks, let me tell you a story about the red fox, and how I came to know him. It is a tale of treachery and violence and vengeance rarely encountered in a family newspaper - or even by me, in my own life, which has not been entirely free of these things.

  But even dumb brutes can learn, and I have long since quit even violence, which I used to enjoy as a sport (but that passed when I realized that not everybody feels that way, and some people really want to hurt you).

  Vengeance went the same way. It was fun to plot and to talk about, but the real thing required more time and energy than being saddled with a terminal disease, and not even the best vengeance ever paid the rent.

  The English language is not crowded with words beginning with the letter “v” that suggest anything but trouble. After violence and vengeance, there is also vulgar, vicious, victim, vermin, vain, vacant, vile, vampire…. the list is long, without a lot of smiles.

  Right. And never mind these arcane drifts of language. We will leave them to villians and vissmongers like Edwin Newman and Robin MacNeil. What we are talking about now is the hideous death in life of a red fox, considered by many experts to be one of the smartest beasts in nature.

“The fox has a distinct personality. His exceptional cunning, amounting sometimes almost to genius, has been responsible for many exaggerated stories of his extreme resourcefulness.” Ibid.

  But not from me. There is a whole nest of those vicious little red buggers about 200 yards across the field from my front porch, and I am now in the process of killing them. I got the big one a few days ago and the others have gone into hiding.

  They went all to pieces when the old man finally returned from his last trip across the field. He was blind in both eyes and covered with a hard crust of feathers and peacock dung, and he was leaving a trail of blood from the stumps of his hind legs.

  It was a midafternoon and the carrion birds were just beginning to think about feeding, but they were not in any hurry. There is no lack of food around here. The peacocks eat well-even at twenty below-and so do all the scavengers. There is always plenty of wheat, cracked corn and french fries.

  But not a lot of meat which is what they really like…. They will eat anything that bleeds, including their own kind, like sharks in a feeding frenzy. If one of them gets wounded , he will be quickly devoured by the others. They eat the eyes and entrails first, and then they get into the meat.

“Certain outdoorsmen consider it a sin to kill a red fox; such enthusiasts view it soley as a coursing animal and are content to let it remain such forever.”                        -Ibid. 

  On any market survey with a “chic scale” from one to ten, the red fox will run about eight. He is a very stylish little animal, with a neo-valuable pelt and a social cache on the level of mean horses and fast dogs.

  Even George Washington loved the red fox. He “spent many happy hours running foxhounds over the wooded areas of his Mount Vernon plantation.”

  On some farms they will settle for lesser prey, like the grey fox - one of the lower and uglier strains in the Vulpes family; it has seyes like warts and hair like the spines of a sea urchin, and a brain like a chicken on speed.

  There is also the coyote, which is hunted or at least chased now amd then by gangs of nouveau riche huntsmen in places like Vail and Palm Springs…. But it is not quite the same, because the coyote always wins.

  He is not a vain little punk like the red fox, with its bitchy little temper and its pampered way of life. The coyote is a mean, solitary meat eater who will kill any dog who can follow it far enough.

  But I have never had a problem with coyotes, although the valley is full of them. In fifteen years of relentless coexistence, not even a rabid coyote has ever come up on my front porch and killed one of my family animals, or even chewed up one of the peacocks.

  The red fox had a different attitude. He was arrogant and greedy and rude, and somewhere along the line he developed a taste for Salisbury steak. He also killed the family cat and took to roaming brazenly in the yard and even up on my porch in broad daylight, sniffing around the peacock cage.

  The Hav-a-Hart trap is a metal box about four feet long, with doors on both ends and a nice little food tray in the middle. When the animal gets far enough in to eat the Salisbury steak, both doors clang shut and close firmly. Escape is impossible.

  When I found the red fox in the cage I talked to him for a while as I prepared a mixture of feathers and peacock dung, which I then began shovelling through the bars and into the cage with him. The fox became hysterical as he thrashed around in the mess, trying to bite off the end of the shovel. Every once in a while I sprayed him with liquid glue and then a final shot of Mace in his eyes before I let him go.

  He looked more like a raccoon than a fox at that point. The glue had set up quickly, producing a layered effect with the dung and the feathers. The beast dragged himself out of the cage, yapping and howling, and ran awkwardly across the field in the general direction of his den in the briar patch.

  On his way across the field, the hideous, stinking, half-blind, brain shattered animal had to pass between two yearling peacocks who were pecking around the grass for bugs, paying no attention to this thing that they didn’t even recognize as a fox. I was stunned, however to see the fox veer off his course and make a kind of staggering dumb-vicious pass at one of the birds. So I shot him from behind with a load of double-O buckshot to help him on his way. The last time I saw him he was covered in blood and two huge red-tailed hawks were circling overhead preparing to take him into the food chain.

(Thompson, H.S., 1988, pp. 171-174, Generation of Swine, Picador, London)