WA History

March of the Fox

The fox ventures everywhere; open plain, mountain fastness, or cleared land makes little difference to his movements in search of prey.

Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 – 1916); 18 January 1910; Page 26; The Warrigal

On 10 January 1910, a Balladonia member of the Pastoralists’ Association wrote a letter to the Association’s secretary. They said that dingoes and rabbits were numerous in the area and advised that they had news of a fox caught at the Nullarbor Station in South Australia. With a distance of over 120 km separating the station from Eucla in Western Australia, the writer predicted that, in a few years, foxes would be another pest to add to the list.

Two years later, in January 1912, the news was much the same. Foxes were still creeping closer to the Western Australian border. The Minister for Agriculture needed to take action. Alex Crawford, the Chief Inspector of Rabbits, suggested the installation of extra wires to the outer barrier of the rabbit-proof fence. It was his opinion that the completed work should render the fence both dingo and fox proof.

In July 1913, the rabbit pest was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Compared to the rabbit, foxes were considered a lesser problem to farmers. Nevertheless, Mr Crawford confirmed that the presence of foxes had become a certainty in the state. He reiterated that the Government had taken action to fox proof the fence and reassured the reporter that “…even if foxes do come across in numbers they will not be able to get into the settled districts of the State.

Despite Mr Crawford’s assurances, there was some scepticism. M.C.G. of Mingenew wrote to the Sunday Times explaining their experience with foxes in South Australia. Their family utilised netting on the property, but it did not stop dogs or foxes climbing over it to get to the sheep.

It made absolutely no difference to foxes at all; they just climbed over wherever they liked. I have known a fox to go over nine feet with a fowl in its mouth. So how does Mr. Crawford propose to stop them?

Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954); 11 January 1914; Page 5; Foxes and Dingoes

A report submitted by Mr Crawford dated June 1916 disclosed that, at the start of the year, two foxes were spotted 128 km east of Esperance. He admitted the foxes could be closer; however, an accurate picture was not available due to a lack of people in the area. Nevertheless, he hoped the fence would keep them out.

As predicted by M.C.G., the additions to the fence did not have the desired long-term results. Foxes soon found a way forward. While they were within Western Australia in 1913, the first news reports of captured foxes did not occur until 1917.

For weeks in May 1917, Joseph Riley, manager of Anketell Station near Sandstone, observed tracks which he thought belonged to foxes. He set a trap east of the rabbit proof fence and caught one. It provided indisputable proof that foxes were in Western Australia.

He sent the skin to the Agricultural Department in Perth. Department officials were interested and confirmed that it was a pure-bred fox. ‘The Daily News’ claimed that “Hitherto no capture has been effected so far West, although foxes are stated to be in fairly large numbers west of Eucla.” It was news no one, least of all farmers, wanted to hear. Foxes were not only in the south-eastern coastal portion of the state; they were north and spreading west.

What with the coming of the rabbit, and now the threatened invasion of the fox, farmers will be kept busy in a few years’ time, as they are in South Australia to-day, in endeavoring to exterminate the pests.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 31 May 1917; Page 7; Foxes Coming West

The capture of one fox meant there was no doubt there were many others in the area. The tracks were numerous. Charles Murray also wrote in a letter to the ‘Western Mail’ that he saw one on Outalpa Station west of the fence. He followed the fox’s tracks and eventually came across another set of tracks. He noted, “I am satisfied that there are foxes on both sides of the fence.

With the first capture, others followed. Joseph Ruttle exhibited the remains of a fox in Kanowna in August 1917. In the same month, Hubert Gull caught a fully grown fox at his property on Fraser’s Range near Norseman. He followed its tracks, noting it seemingly travelled over 90 km.

A year later, settlers in the Wagin district were losing sheep and were assuming the cause was dingoes. Trapper Henderson set traps and, in June 1918, he was much surprised to find a fox caught in one. While it was not the first fox caught in the state, it was the first in the Great Southern districts.

1919 saw an increase in reports. In February, Dumbleyung residents saw foxes and caught one. In March, Constable Charles Read at Gingin wrote a letter and included news that the fox pest arrived in the district. Likewise, in March, Inspector Alexander Graham travelled around the Tambellup area and was told of two foxes trapped north of Nyabing. By May 1919, ‘The Daily News’ reported that foxes in Greenough were killing lambs.

I might say that the foxes have been seen by several people here in Bookara, and I understand that Mr. Hamersley, living about 8 miles from here, near Walkaway, caught one in a trap some while back. I heard that they are down in the Gingin district and in the sea hills between here and Geraldton. I don’t suppose that the rabbit-proof fence has any more chance to keep the foxes back than the rabbits. [Edward Edwards]

Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954); 15 June 1919; Page 14; Rural Topics

In August 1919, a report from Esperance stated that there were five foxes (assumed to be a mother and four cubs) east of the town. While newspapers recounted sightings such as these, there were more than likely some that escaped attention.

For years Wanneroo residents occasionally observed a red-coloured animal running around the area. Henry Chitty suspected it was a fox. In 1918 he shot it, preserved the skin, and kept quiet as those he told ridiculed him. During a visit by Ernest Le Souef of the Zoological Gardens and Wilfred Alexander of the Museum, he showed them the skin. They confirmed it was a fox.

Henry loaned the fox skin to Wilfred, and he exhibited it at the Royal Society before displaying it at the entrance to the Museum in Perth. The male fox pelt with its “splendid brush” was a curiosity but also served as a reminder of how far the pest had travelled and that it was firmly ensconced in the west.

Accounts such as these continued throughout the 1920s and increased significantly in the 1930s. Photographs were taken and printed in newspapers. Despite initially being unconcerned, the fox grew to become a problem in Western Australia. Today they are a declared pest. You can read more about them and their impact here: https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/pest-mammals/red-fox

Seven foxes caught on one night at Dongara in 1935.



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