Image for The Fantastic Story of Mr Fox

Here’s a Tasmanian fox yarn that hit the headlines in the same month the twin towers of World Trade Centre in New York were attacked in 2001. It’s a story about a dead fox that turned up in Tasmania.

So how did the story go?

The story goes two Tasmanian men had been out shooting wallabies and one man shot a fox at close range near the Midland highway at Symmons Plains.

The story goes the shooter who claimed he’d shot foxes in Australia - used a spotlight and a telescopic site. He thought he’d missed the animal he was shooting at and didn’t even bother looking for it.

The story goes that 10 days later he found a dead animal whilst driving through the property collecting fire wood.

The story goes that this smelly body was taken back to the hunter’s home in the town of Perth.

The story goes that the hunter [Eric Bosworth] rang a friend in Parks and Wildlife Service telling him he had a dead fox.

The story goes that a possie of PWS staff rushed to Mr Bosworth’s home, identified the dead animal as ‘a fox’ and photographed it.

The story goes the dead fox was also X-rayed [for bullet fragments] and then taken to a government pathologist [Phil Ladds] for a post mortem examination.

The story goes the pathologist confirmed that the fox was “badly decomposed”, and maggot-ridden; his diagnosis “probable shooting” but in his examination found no lead shot in the body. The pathologist concluded the decomposed body was unsuitable for further examinations but he agreed to allowing the PWS to take some dissected parts; the “stomach contents and viscera of the throat and upper neck region were removed, and then returned to PWS for further examination”.

The story goes that a PWS officer [Chris Emms] then wrote up a report on what happened. “Three fragments of lead from the pieces of tissue that Phil Lads [sic] had given me”; they were “kept for ballistic analysis”.

The story goes Mr Emms then “began separating the stomach contents”. “From the stomach I removed feathers, bird feet, skin from a small mammal, shells of corby grubs, a tail from what looked like skink, and a berry of some sort”.

The story goes Mr Emms then “sent the skin off to Hans Brunner”. [Mr Brunner is a person experienced in hair identification to species.]

The story goes Mr Brunner reported [in a very short hand-written letter] on the items he received by mail from Mr Emms; “hairs, bones and tooth of Pseudomys higginsi”. Mr Emms’ report re-phrased this; “hair from the fox stomach is from the Pseudomys higginsi (long tailed rat) which is endemic to Tasmania and found in the local area.”

The story also goes that PWS then compared the DNA of this fox with the DNA from a decomposed fox skin posted to them several weeks earlier [The DNA comparison is now recognised as a baseless conclusion as the second sample was derived from a silly hoaxing incident in which two shooters sent photographs of themselves holding a dead fox by a road sign near Longford to Tasmanian papers; PWS subsequently received a putrid fox skin in the mail!]. Mr Emms’ 2001 report states, “DNA results showed that the fox shot at Symmons Plains is related to the fox allegedly shot at Woodstock [near Longford].”

According to Mr Emms’ report on the story, this ranger “took possession of Erick Bosworth’s firearm he claimed he shot the fox with.” “I took this to the Ballistics Section of the Tasmania Police along with fragments I retrieved from the fox carcase. A test was conducted on the firearm to try and determine if the fragments of projectile matched the gun of Erick Bosworth; unfortunately the fragments were too badly damaged to retrieve any results.”

And so, according to Mr Emms, he was able to put this fantastic fox story together. Mr Emms concluded his report: “From the evidence I have collected and after seeing the area where the fox was shot I conclude that Erick Bosworth did shoot this fox on the Crown Land bordering Symmons Plains property. It is apparent from the scientific results that the fox has been dieting on Tasmanian products [plural] which indicates it has been in Tasmania for some time. Based on this, we are now in possession of evidence that we have had a number of foxes roaming the Longford/Symmons Plains area.”

How does “the evidence” connect?

1. This was a dead fox found in Tasmania.

2. Was the fox shot by Mr Erick Bosworth with the rifle he surrendered? - not proven

3. Did this fox live in Tasmania before is was found dead shot - disputed

4. Was this fox was related another dead fox exhibit posted to PWS - no proven

The tooth and hair of a long tailed mouse were identified by an experienced mammal expert, but the long-tailed mouse is not known to occur at the vicinity of where this fox was allegedly shot. These important forensic items were not kept and therefore can’t be re-examined. [A fox expert examining this Symmons Plains evidence in 2006 asked an obvious question - why didn’t the ranger find all of the mouse?] When these inconsistencies were also brought to the attention of a PWS biologist assigned to the Fox Taskforce, his response was Mr Bosworth might have shot the fox at another location in Tasmania in an area where long-tailed mice did occur and that Mr Bosworth might then have moved the dead fox to the Symmons Plains location. Such an explanation would then contradict the witness statements given to Mr Emms by Mr Bosworth and Mr Geeves on 27th September 2001. 

Mr Emms’ conclusion that two DNA samples - one from Mr Bosworth’s fox and another obtained from a parcel-posted decomposed fox skin sent to PWS in Longford - were “related” was erroneous; there was no basis for this conclusion in molecular genetics. Mr Emms’ conclusion that there were multiple ‘related’ foxes in Tasmania in 2001 was never proven, based on his investigation.

So the official certainty for this alleged fox shooting incident relies on the say-so of two Tasmanian men - both individuals who had wildlife and firearms offences pending at the time (later sustained) - and mammal exhibits recovered by a Parks ranger from the decomposed remains of this fox; a critical exhibit that was discarded.

This is a fantastic story and it remains an officially accepted incident and since 2001 the government’s Fox Program has relied on that “evidence” to conclude. “we have had a number of foxes roaming the Longford/Symmons Plains area”.