Although a very contentious topic today the wearing of animal fur had for centuries been very much a fashion statement. Silver fox fur was amongst the most prized and popular kind, hardly any special social occasion would happen without the fur being worn as a fashion statement. If you read any of the newspaper wedding reports from the 1800s onwards it was always emphasised that the bride wore something with silver fox fur on it, albeit as a trim, collar, stole or the like. At first the furs were imported from North America where fur trappers would kill and skin wild silver foxes. As their numbers began to decline due to over hunting silver fox farms were established in Canada who would export the skins to Britain. In about 30 years Silver Fox farms began it be established in this country with Dartmoor leading the way.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 one of the exhibits were fur and skins from the arctic regions sent by the Hudson Bay Company. “They are of great value, beauty, and interest: containing upwards of 150 specimens, bear, sable, wolf, fox, mink, beaver, lynx and otter; valuable and costly such as the black and silver fox, and the sea otter, a single skin of each realising from twenty to forty- five guineas.” – The North Devon Journal, September 11th 1951. By 1867 it was suggested that at the London fur auctions 75,000 fox furs of various kinds were sold each year with a single silver fox skin fetching £100. It was estimated that the Hudson Bay Company and other fur companies made £14,000 in the March sales of that year for silver fox skins alone. – The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, December 13th 1867. In 1876 Queen Victoria visited the London Hospital and it was reported that she wore; “a black silk dress with black velvet coat trimmed with silver fox fur.” Later that year the Princess of Cornwall was described as wearing; “a simple robe of black silk and a black velvet jacket trimmed with jet and the fur of the silver fox.” Clearly if silver fox fur was popular with the royalty of the time it should come as no surprise that such fur was in great demand for the fashion industry. At the time much of this fur along with that from many other creatures was being imported. In 1883 figures for the fur trade showed that 2,000 silver foxes were killed in that year which was a decline on previous years. In 1885 one fashion writer commented that; “A set of silver fox which makes one envy that animal its coat,” rather an ironic statement, if that was the case leave the fur on them. There can be no question that Silver Fox fur was fast becoming a rare commodity. It was noted that in 1899; “so rare are the silver fox skins that only 535 were garnered by the white and Indian trappers of north west america. In the same year a single silver fox skin fetched £370 at the Cottage Hill sales. By the early 1900s silver fox fur was commanding even higher prices and in 1900 a single silver fox skin from the Hudson Bay Company fetched a record £500. In the same year another fashion guru wrote; “Silver Fox, one of the most exquisite of all furs, is domestic to America, and is very costly when real. The real silver fox, with its soft long white tipped fur, and the dark rich streak down the centre of the skin, the size and depth of which regulate the price, is considered quite as elegant as Russian sable, and is more generally becoming. One skin makes the muff, using the head and tail, and three makes the pelerine or scarf.” – The Torquay Times, December 7th 1900.
With the obvious decline in the wild populations of silver foxes and the increased demand for their fur it was only a matter of time before somebody established a silver fox farm breeding domestic foxes. In the late 1890s one of the first of this kind was established on the Prince Edward Island in Canada. It was a 250 acre ranch with ten pairs of pedigree breeding silver foxes owned by a Mr. Tuplin. He bred the foxes and then shipped their pelts to London. By 1913 several silver fox farms had established themselves on the island and it was estimated that in that year the capital invested in the industry was around five million dollars. In that year a Russian syndicate purchased six pairs of pups from the Chas. Dalton Silver Fox Company for the staggering amount of $100,000. The fur market soon found that the prices fetched for live silver foxes by far exceeded that obtained from their pelts. With the onset of the First World War demand for luxury furs began to decline with the Prince Edward Island live silver foxes selling for between $2,000 and $5,000 a pair, half the price of the previous year. By 1920 there were around 3,000 foxes on the island and the sales of their foxes and skins was worth $2,000,000.
Being such a lucrative industry it was only a matter of time before somebody established fur farms in the United Kingdom. In 1922 Colonel Chute had already established a skink farm on Dartmoor at Teigncombe. It was then decided to introduce silver foxes to the farm. In the October of 1925 the George Washington docked in Plymouth with a cargo of 104 silver fox cubs on their way to Silesia in Central Europe. Unfortunately there was no vet onboard and several fell sick, hence the reason for docking at Plymouth. A local vet was sent on board to inspect the ten week old cubs and found them to have recovered, their value being around $150 each. It did not take long for other silver fox farms to spring up on Dartmoor with the Silver Fox Ranch just outside Moretonhampstead and the Forest Silver Fox Farm at Manaton. the cold climate of Dartmoor was said at the time to improve the quality of the fur being that akin to what was once their natural habitat.
As with any livestock breeders there is always the need to show off your animals and it did not take long for Silver Fox shows to begin. At the Crystal Palace in 1926 there were around 100 silver foxes showing in various classes. A report of the time stated; “There were plenty of thrills when the hundred foxes were judged. It took three men to remove these little bundles of ferocity from their cages. The more obstreperous animals had first to be secured with iron clamps round their necks, while one of the men grasped the hind legs, The fox was then swiftly extricated from the cage and while thus held the third member of the party tied up its mouth with twine to prevent any possible injury to the judge.” – The Western Morning News, November 19th 1926. The following year a similar show took place at Crystal Palace with 86 silver foxes on show. Locally there was an annual Silver Fox Show held at Ilsington to which local breeders took many of the prizes. It did not take long for the Dartmoor breeders to start winning national prizes for their foxes competing against breeders mainly from Scotland. In 1930 at Glasgow the Silver Fox Breeders Association held a show at which: – “Dartmoor breeders of silver foxes are making a big effort this year to win the laurels from their Scottish competitors in this new industry. Two special coaches were attached to the afternoon train from Newton Abbot yesterday containing 45 foxes from the Dartmoor Fur Farm, Chagford, the Silver Fox Ranch, Moretonhampstead, and the Forest Silver Fox Farm, Manaton. The foxes were in separate boxes for travelling. A couple, black with tiny silver spots and a white tip to the bushy tail, were taken out to show our representative. One was quite tame with his owner, lying across his shoulder, but this, the owner said, was quite an exception,. Most of them remained quite fierce all their lives.” – The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, November 11th, 1930. “At the judging here of the City Hall exhibition of silver foxes in the class for black foxes, the Dartmoor Fur Farm took first prize with third for “cub dogs”; for adult vixens first also; the second going to the Forest Silver Fox Farm, Manaton. For slight silver cub vixens and for slight silver cub dogs first prizes were gained by Dartmoor, and second Blackingstone. In quarter silver adult vixens Dartmoor was second, In half silver cub dogs Dartmoor was third.” – The Western Morning News, November 15th, 1930. It did not take long for the Dartmoor silver fox strains to become popular with a good number of other English fur farms running with their stock. At the Blackingstone Silver Fox Ranch owned by Messrs. Thuron and M’llwraith running with 15 pairs. The Forest Silver Fox Farm reported that their 10 vixens had reared 30 cubs over the year with a view to increasing stocks the following year. The growing popularity of the industry and the successes of the established breeders saw several new entrants trying to enter the market. Adverts began appearing in the local press for people looking to buy or rent suitable land for establishing a fur farm. One such example being; “Wanted to buy or rent, on long lease, small farm, 10 to 70 acres, of land suitable for silver fox farming. Dry, sandy soil preferred and in a coastal district, Kingswear to Dawlish.” The Western Morning News, March 4th 1931. The Dartmoor silver foxes soon became popular exhibitions at the Devon County Show. In 1931 a terrific storm turned the showground into a quagmire, so wet was it that the silver foxes were taken back to their Dartmoor farm overnight and brought back in the next day. In the June of 1931 the Teigncombe silver foxes had a special visitor in the form of the Prince of Wales who was interested to see their progress. Whilst there the then owner Mr. C. J. Johnstone showed him a most unexpected friendship between a kitten and two fox cubs. By this time it is amusing to see how at the national and regional shows the silver foxes have been given names such as Dartmoor Carmen, Dartmoor Marquis, Forest Gypsy, and Tor Dolly. Dartmoor was always a keen fox hunting territory and it is quite amusing when reading some of the hunt reports when they were in the Kestor area. The Dartmoor Fur farm was not very far from the open moor around Kestor and it was always a stressful time for the master when his hounds began moving close to the farm.
In 1933 there were 80 silver fox farm in Great Britain, all supposedly doing well with the Silver Fox Breeders Association registering over 1,000 cubs a year. As the number of British fur farms increased the old idea that to get the best fur the foxes had to be kept in a cold harsh environment such as Dartmoor soon became dispelled as breeders from lowland Devon were also prospering. By the 1940s the silver fox fur industry began to decline, one theory for this was the selling of worthless animals as foundation stock. This combined with the growth in such farms in Britain also meant fur prices began to drop, additionally fashion trends were moving towards mink fur and even mole skins which also led to a drop in sales. In the January of 1943 Rendells auctioneers advertised a sale at the Blackingstone Silver Fox Ranch by which all the wire, netting, water pipes, railing etc. were up for auction, this marked the end of that farm. The September of the same year saw a similar auction at The Dartmoor Fur farm at Teigncombe again heralding the closure of that farm. By the 1950s the high cost of feed, taxation further led to diminishing returns and the end of an era for silver fox farming on Dartmoor. Well, it may have been the end of silver fox farming but not necessarily the end of silver foxes on Dartmoor as there have been several unsubstantiated sightings of them on the moor. It could well be these foxes are the offspring of ones that somehow escaped from the fur farms and have managed to thrive to this day?