Fox at night

Are men with dogs persecuting foxes in east London?

On Boxing Day morning 2022, Karen pulled up in Coldharbour Lane car park, Rainham, overlooking the River Thames. She was visiting hear parents nearby at the time. As she walked through the car park, though, she felt something was off. A white Ford van was also parked up, the person next to it apparently letting a terrier-type dog run off their lead through the car park. This was the Karen’s first sign that she may have witnessed something unusual.

Coldharbour Lane car park overlooks the ‘concrete barges’ landmark at one side, and into Veolia’s Rainham landfill site on the other. Its nonetheless a popular starting point for the public due to a trail that leads along the Thames and around several nature reserves, including Wennington Marshes and Rainham Marshes. These offer bursts of nature in an otherwise densely urbanised part of east London. According to Karen, though, some of that nature is under attack.

A couple of days after Boxing Day, Karen was back at Coldharbour Lane and got chatting with another couple walking in the area. She told Protect the Wild that:

“they were worried because they’d seen two men on the landfill site… shouting across to each other, and there was a lot of dogs running around on the site [with their noses] low to the ground.

“They thought it was odd but couldn’t put their finger on why.”

Karen said she returned to the site on 29 December. It was early morning again, and the white Ford van was there again. This time, a grey estate car accompanied it. All of a sudden, Karen saw a pack of “earth-type” dogs running on land near Veolia’s landfill site. The dogs were heading back to the Ford van, after which the van and the estate car left the car park.

She reported what she’d seen to the police, believing something illegal may have occurred.

Six dead foxes

On New Year’s Eve, the day Karen returned to her home in the south-west, Karen said she was contacted by someone living locally to the landfill site. This man, who was familiar with the wildlife in the area, said a cat’s body was found near the landfill site. Furthermore, he said, foxes in the area had since gone missing, and the body of one fox was even found mutilated near Veolia’s gates.

Footpath between Veolia landfill site and Rainham marshes
Footpath between Veolia’s landfill site and Rainham Marshes, via diamond geezer/Flickr.

A week later she heard from this man again. Karen said:

“[He] told me that there’d been a lady there at dusk on 7 or 8 [January 2023] and she’d witnessed what I assume to be the same guys and these dogs. The dogs were pulling a fox out of the hedge. It was dead. They just picked [the fox] up and chucked it over the hedge. She [the witness] pulled up somewhere safe, rang the police, and told them. When I got in touch with the police about this, they said that when they’d got there, there was no evidence. They’d obviously had that call because they said they went, but said they couldn’t find any evidence. Obviously they wouldn’t!”

And a few more days after this, the man informed her that a security guard at the Veolia site had “found another two foxes just pulled apart by the gate”. Karen told Protect the Wild that she’s attempted to contact Veolia about the incidents and allegations, as well as the security company, but heard nothing back from either.

Finally, two more fox bodies were allegedly found on 23 January. “That’s six bodies now, and those are just the ones people have seen,” Karen said.

Further reports from other parties

Protect the Wild contacted the Metropolitan Police about the incidents. It confirmed the reports, saying:

“Police are aware of two allegations of wildlife crime in the area of Riverside Carpark, Rainham between 29 December 2022 and 7 January 2023.

“This is being investigated by the borough’s wildlife crime officer as well as the dedicated ward officer.

“Enquiries are ongoing; no arrests have been made.”

Protect the Wild also tried contacting Veolia, but at the time of publishing hadn’t received a response. Meanwhile, we were unable to ascertain which companies Veolia employed for security and ‘wildlife management’ at the site.

However, the RSPB was also able to confirm that it was aware of a report of such an incident. The bird protection charity is responsible for Rainham Marshes and Wennington Marshes, which sit on the other side of Coldharbour Lane from the landfill. After Protect the Wild asked whether it knew of either Karen’s reported incident or other, similar incidents in the area, it said:

“One possible incident has been reported. The police have investigated extensively and found nothing to suggest any illegal hunting has taken place – police patrols have been stepped up also.”

Karen has since confirmed that an officer handling the case had contacted her to say that the registration plates didn’t provide any leads, and that Veolia had reviewed its CCTV and found “nothing suspicious”.

Fox looking at a City of London bin

One final point of contact was the Celia Hammond Animal Trust, based in Canning Town, which Karen mentioned to Protect the Wild as having heard reports of “men with dogs” in Rainham. Protect the Wild spoke with the same person at the rescue that Karen did. He confirmed that the rescue has worked with Veolia at its Rainham landfill site for many years, and that during recent attempts to locate a feral cat, locals that walked the area had told them about men with dogs at the site who were possibly “ratting”. However, he also explained that Veolia’s landfill site itself is tightly secured and that, if any wildlife persecution was taking place, it’d be happening on the open access land outside of the landfill. He hadn’t himself witnessed any men with dogs or dead foxes.

Fox coursing?

Knowing what elements of Karen’s story relate to the intentional persecution of foxes is difficult, given the lack of independent evidence. She suggested to Protect the Wild that Veolia may be involved in unscrupulous and informal ‘pest control’ practices on its Rainham site. However, there are no other reports suggesting the company has engaged in such behaviour in the past, either at Rainham or elsewhere.

Veolia did make news in June 2021, though, after it mowed down acres of grassland, home to multiple species of rare birds, at its Rainham landfill site. ENDS Report said that bird conservationists including the founder of Birdwatch magazine, who had visited the site, accused Veolia “of destroying a generation of rare birds by mowing grassland… in the middle of the breeding season”. ENDS reported in October of that year that the Metropolitan Police had passed a file on the incident to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, nothing more about the case has since been made public.

It is possible that the dead foxes were the result of coursing. While hare coursing is more famous, people also course foxes using any number of sighthounds, which include breeds such as greyhounds, salukis and lurchers. Similar to hare coursing, the Hunting Act prohibited fox coursing across England and Wales, while in Scotland it was prohibited by the protection of Wild Mammals Act. Unlike hare coursing, it seems to fly under the radar of the legal system, with the government’s August 2022 strengthening of anti-coursing legislation explicitly focusing on hare coursing while not affecting fox coursing.

Nonetheless, fox coursing continues. In August 2021, the DerbyshireLive reported on the arrest of a man suspected of stealing machinery. When police examined his mobile phone, however, it revealed:

“more than 43,000 images and videos, many of which showed evidence of apparent hare, deer and fox coursing”.

However, hunting and coursing isn’t the only way in which people continue persecuting foxes.

Foxes used for dog fighting

The killing of both foxes and a cat in Karen’s story is also reminiscent of a situation in Rotherhithe, about 15 miles away from Rainham, in which residents believed foxes were caught for use in dog fighting. In September 2009, a local affairs blog shared the story of “the torture of a fox in the Russia Dock Woodland”, in which:

“A fox was found shackled in the undergrowth next to Lavender Pond. Local residents could hear the chain jangling for days on end but couldn’t work out where the noise was coming from. Then [the fox] must have unshackled [themselves] and was seen by a local resident in her garden with the chain hanging from [their] leg… She then called the Fox Project who contacted their local volunteer. She took four hours to find the fox which was shackled to the ground unable to move and in distress. She stated to the Wildlife Crime Officer that “the other end of the chain was buried into the ground and the earth replaced so that [the fox] couldn’t move.””

Russia Dock Woodland
Russia Dock Woodland, via Barney Moss/Flickr.

Sky News picked the story up at the time. It said:

“Two dead foxes have been found and three dead cats have also been discovered “ripped to pieces”.

“Wildlife campaigners believe the foxes are caught and used as bait for dogs ahead of illegal fights.”

The situation was later picked up by the Mirror. In July 2010, it said that “sick thugs” in Rotherhithe were catching foxes for use in dog fights:

“Wildlife volunteer Toby Horrod, 32, said: “These yobs used to train dogs by fighting them against stray cats. Then they started catching the foxes for the same reason.”

“He added: “They take their dogs and nets into the park to round up and catch the foxes. It’s sick.””

In September 2010, the local efforts to defend foxes believed itself successful. A message on image-sharing website Flickr said that the campaign “brought about the much hoped for immediate halt in cruelty to foxes”.

Community direct action

It’s unclear what happened in Rainham over the festive period, or even if the whole situation was a bizarre series of otherwise innocent coincidences. There’s a lack of evidence pointing to anything particular. However, those of us involved in opposing more common forms of wildlife persecution such as hunting know that these things can occur while leaving little if any trace.

Karen’s story shines a light on some of the murkiest recesses of wildlife persecution in this country. And, as the Russia Dock Woodland case shows, community direct action seriously dent the activities of people seeking to harm foxes. It pays for all of us to remain vigilant so that we can support and protect our non-human comrades.

If you have any information on this story, please contact Protect the Wild.

Take a look at Protect the Wild’s campaigns to learn what more you can do to help end fox persecution.