By Charlotte Owen
Winter is a busy season for foxes. If there are any living near you – and there probably are – you’ll be well aware of just how active they are at this time of year, yapping and screaming at all hours of the night and leaving plenty of unmistakable foxy scent.
Scent is probably too delicate a word for the pungent, musky tang of fox. Foxes are undeniably smelly but they positively pong when their natural odour intensifies for the winter breeding season. An accidental lungful of fresh fox scent is enough to make your eyes water, even to our inferior human noses, but foxes have a much keener sense of smell and scent is their prime method of communication. Their musk is a complex mixture of more than 80 different compounds and is packed full of pheromones, wafting around their bodies like a cloud of intoxicating perfume. Each individual has a unique aroma that allows them to broadcast their identity and breeding status to potential mates, as well as their strength and bravado to potential rivals.
To make sure they smell the way they should, foxes have scent glands all over their bodies. Like cats and dogs, they have a pair of anal glands at the rear end and they also emit eau de fox from glands on their cheeks and jaws, across their skin and even between their toes. There’s a special scent gland at the base of their tail that apparently smells like violets, and it’s so active during the breeding season that its waxy secretions often stain the fur dark.
Scent is especially important when it comes to marking territory, and fox urine is potent enough to leave a long-lasting message. One intrepid researcher determined just how long by bottling some fox-scented sawdust in a jar, which still stank when it was opened five years later. Laying down such a strong chemical signal sends an unmistakeable territorial message to keep out, and a mated pair will even mark each other to mingle their scents and strengthen the pair bond. Trespassers are not tolerated and the resident pair will voice their outrage while chasing them off into the night.