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NATURE No outfoxing the mighty mange mite

Outdoor Living

Foxes infected with Sarcoptes scabiei face a long, lingering death.
?Foxes infected with Sarcoptes scabiei face a long, lingering death.

No outfoxing the mighty  mange mite

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

While the summer months had been exceptionally kind to our wild things, the onset of winter is really starting to sort them out. Until now there had been food in abundance; suddenly it is short in supply, and soon it will be scarce. The smaller animals are the first to feel the pinch. They always are. But sooner or later the lean times work their way up the food chain and affect the whole system.
It is now that rodents such as rats and mice are encroaching on our homes, and who can blame them? Had we been born with their innocence we would easily excuse ourselves for tapping into a free feed. It must be tough out there, with the autumn glut of nuts and berries all but gone. What is there now, apart from insects and worms? Even these will be getting hard to find. And as for all those hours spent in the cold damp – wouldn’t it be much easier to find a nice warm barn, or even a comfortable attic?
Rodents are eaten by foxes, and the prosperity of the former has led to greater numbers of these than I have seen for many years. For every one that we see there are many more that stay out of sight, of that we can be sure. In the last few days alone we have seen several dead on the road and met with three fully alive and well. Two of these were young animals, long-limbed, lean and gaunt with youth. The third was fully plump and round with a wonderfully red coat and a thick brush that terminated in a creamy white tip. Not all our foxes have white tips to their tails, although I am certain all those I ever encountered in the United kingdom did.
Another fox wandered into our garden last week. I caught a glimpse of it as I pulled up in the car and could see immediately that it was not healthy. Its tail (complete with white tip, this one) was bedraggled, thin and almost hairless and the animal moved more slowly than it should. Age has caught up with the poor thing and hunger had driven it to make a daytime visit to the chicken run. Mange, so often the killer of older foxes, had taken hold of it’s rear end and would soon cause hair loss over much of the body.
Mange is caused by a parasitic mite, Sarcoptes scabiei, a terrible mini-beast that causes intense itching by burrowing into the skin of an otherwise healthy creature. An affected fox tries to relieve itself of the itch by scratching and nibbling, but this only serves to accentuate infection and intensify the irritation. It always seems to take hold of the back end first, so that an otherwise full-coated animal might have patches of thinned hair or even baldness around its haunches and along the tail.
Mange almost always leads to a long and lingering death, normally within four months of its appearance. In its last days of life an infected fox can behave very strangely, wandering with apparent aimlessness, walking in endless circles and even losing its natural fear of humans. It is this time of year we are most likely to meet a mange-infected fox. For one thing, the lack of cover means foxes abroad during daylight hours are much more visible, and for another, the stresses brought about by a shortage of food mean infection is more likely to occur.
Now here is the question we need an answer to: Can humans be affected by Sarcoptes scabiei?
The answer is yes. It doesn’t happen very often (about 1 percent of the population can expect to play host to the mite during their lifetime), but when it does the unfortunate victim certainly knows about it. He or she will also highly contagious until the matter is sorted. Undiagnosed, scabies, as it is affectionately known, can certainly diminish a person’s quality of life beyond measure and needs to be treated.
We can be thankful that modern medicine has not left us without a cure, although cures are, by their very nature, expensive. Traditionally, tea tree oil or neem oil has been used to eliminate the mites. A doctor would likely prescribe an insecticidal cream containing 5 percent permethrin, which would doubtless cost a good deal more than neem or tea tree and certainly be equally effective.
It is unlikely that Mr Fox shall pass on part of his cargo, for the scabies mite clings tight to the skin of its host and can only be passed on through direct or indirect contact. For this reason an infected animal should never be picked up or brought to the vet. There is only one cure, and this to be administered at a distance of ten metres or more, from the barrel of a gun.