It’s a still January night; a single cloud drifts across the full moon as the camera pans across a woodland scene, the silhouetted branches rimed with frost and backlit by moonlight. The nocturnal silence is broken only by the rustle of a few skeleton leaves until suddenly there is a chilling scream – but this is not a village in Midsomer and nobody is being murdered. It’s just the local foxes trying to find a mate, and their shrill shrieking is a staple TV sound effect for any scene set after dark.
Foxes rely heavily on scent to communicate with each other but they also have an impressive repertoire of barks, screeches, chirps, whines and squeals. These can be heard at any time of year but winter is the height of the mating season, and foxes are particularly vocal at the moment. A short, explosive scream is a male aggressively warning off a rival, while a longer shriek is more often made by a female calling out for a mate. You might also hear a series of three or four barks, which are contact calls, and will often be followed by a scream. This spine-chilling sound is just as likely to pierce the night in the city centre as it is in the remote countryside, and it’s designed for long-distance communication. We tend to pick up on it more in winter because the sound travels even further through cold air, and there is less vegetation to muffle it.
Once all the screaming has had the desired effect, a bonded pair will stay in close contact. Vixens only come into heat once a year and will be receptive for just three days, so the dog fox shadows his mate’s every move so as not to miss his chance and to guard her from rival males. Early attempts to mate are often rebuffed with a snarl but when the time is right, amorous pairs can be seen bounding about together quite playfully. After mating, the vixen turns her attention to securing a safe den site and both parents will raise the cubs when they are born in early spring.