If you think you've seen more red foxes in the county than usual, you're probably right. The little bushy-tailed critters are enjoying life in Baltimore County and nearby areas, judging from reports suggesting an increase in population.
"There are foxes everywhere," said Les Richardson, president of the Baltimore County Farm Bureau. "There are no more bunny rabbits - the foxes and coyotes keep them all harvested. Also, they're taking a toll on wild ducks."
The number of red fox sightings rose by a third in the region that includes Baltimore and neighboring counties, according to the most recent available state survey of bowhunters. That compares with an 8 percent increase statewide from the previous year.
About 450 bowhunters participated in the 2004-2005 annual survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which requested information on 14 "furbearer" animals, such as coyotes, raccoons, foxes and minks.
The hunters saw red foxes more than any other furbearing animal, with the most sightings in the Piedmont Province, which consists of Baltimore, Harford, Cecil, Howard, Montgomery and Carroll counties.
The number of calls about red foxes from Baltimore County residents to a nuisance wildlife information line increased in the 2004 federal budget year, but the overall numbers are too small to draw conclusions, said Robert Beyer, associate director of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service's Game Management Program.
Red foxes can be found in rural, suburban and urban areas. They prefer to live near the edges between fields and forest, although they are adaptable. "Red fox have set up housekeeping under someone's backyard shed," Beyer said. "It's a good, safe place for them."
Red foxes have orangish-red coats, black feet and weigh about 10 pounds. They will eat insects, fruit, nuts, berries, snakes, garbage, mice, voles, rabbits and birds. They can prey on cats and small farm animals such as chickens or ducks.
"Foxes have been my main menace," said Steven Wilson, owner of the Wilson Dairy Farm on 240 acres in Parkton. The foxes killed a duck and some domestic turkeys on his farm, he said.
"Besides being a nuisance and taking small animals, fox can be a disease-carrier as well," Wilson said. "They get something called mange [a skin condition]. They can spread that to the cattle as well. I shot one fox two weeks ago, and it had mange on it. You cringe because you know they can carry it to other animals."
Foxes grew so plentiful on Wilson's farm that he hired a trapper last winter for the first time in many years. The trapper caught 18 foxes in two weeks, he said, and two appeared to have mange.
Mange infections usually spread just within the same species, according to wildlife biologist Scott Healey.
An overabundance of certain wildlife can disrupt the balance of nature, said Thomas Reynolds, a co-owner of Hideaway Farm in Reisterstown.
Deer have destroyed the underbrush where rabbits live, he said, "so there's no place for the rabbit to hide, and the fox has an easier time finding dinner. So the fox population has gone way up. The foxes have pretty much eaten up a lot of the pheasant."
"At my farm, we work very hard to keep the fox population under control" by trapping about 20 per year, said Reynolds, whose farm has vegetables, strawberries, cows, pigs, turkeys and hay. "The balance of wildlife is where my problem with them is," he said of red foxes. "I want to see woodcock and pheasant."
Red foxes have an inverse relationship to the coyote population because they compete for the same habitat, wildlife experts say. When the coyote population grows, the number of red foxes declines. With so many red fox sightings in the Piedmont region, it's not surprising that coyote sightings were not as numerous there as in some other parts of the state.
Hunters saw coyotes most often in Garrett County, with the Piedmont region having the second-fewest sightings, according to the bowhunter survey. The state does not have enough years of data from the bowhunter surveys to analyze for trends, said Robert Colona, Furbearer Project Leader at the DNR.
Several farmers in Baltimore County said they haven't seen coyotes. "I haven't seen one yet, but my neighbors all claim they have seen some," said Wilson, whose farm is near the Pennsylvania border.
"Right now, coyotes are a novelty for most of us," said Steve Weber of Weber's Cider Mill Farm in the Cub Hill/Carney area.
Richardson said he has seen coyote tracks on his produce and chicken farm in White Marsh. He has also seen a decline in ducks and snakes, which he attributes to foxes and coyotes. "We always had ducks on our irrigation pond, and now we don't have ducks anymore," said Richardson, who also has a 115-acre farm in Glen Arm.