Updated: Nov 20
Should we feed foxes?
By providing food for foxes each night will this make them reliant on a food source, will this food source encourage more foxes to breed, decrease the foxes normal territory size, create more reports on fox attacks against people, will they stop hunting for themselves and could this lead to an increase in rodents as we take away their instinct to hunt. If we stop feeding them after they have become reliant will they simply just starve? By feeding foxes are we encouraging rats and mice? Is this food so kindly supplied by the householder causing foxes more harm than good?
It would seem most organisations recommend not feeding foxes for some or all of the above mentioned, so here I would like to look closely at the points raised and to see if in my opinion any of the concerns are indeed warranted.
Providing food for foxes each night will make them reliant on a food source?:
Like all successful predators, a fox will take the easy option if one was to present itself, so by providing food each night will the fox just become lazy and dependent. I decided to test the theory by monitoring the foxes visits via CCTV between the hours of 9pm through to 8am in the morning.
Each fox would be timed whilst at the food site and a percentage worked out for the eleven hour period. Three foxes that visit the food each night I could identify by behaviour and or markings. These three for want of a better name will be named Fox1 Fox2 and Fox3, any other foxes that turned up would be clumped under Fox3 until identification was possible.
In addition to noting the fox visits, all other animals were noted and their frequency during the eleven hours of each night. I will continue with the monitoring over the course of twelve months as I am aware that different months could lead to different activities for example January -Peak Breeding and Peak Dispersal, March - Peak time for cubs to be born ETC and this behaviour could lead to a change in feeding habits.
This first monitoring period covers the days between the 20th of December 2015 through to the 18th of January 2016 from 9pm through to 8am a total of 319 hours studied.
Each hour throughout the night each fox would be timed and a total for each hour then calculated. Then over the course of 11 hours the visiting times were combined for each fox to give a total and a percentage. The same is true for any cats, rats and hedgehogs. The only cat not included in this is the cat Bauer, as he is resident throughout the night on most nights.
The most surprising at the start of this survey was the frequency of the hedgehog and the times spent at the food site. Never during monitoring were more than one hedgehog present at one time so it was difficult to be able to say with any degree of accuracy, how many hedgehogs were coming to dine but there was at least two due to size differences. You will note on the graph that the Hedgehogs finally went into hibernation on or around the 7th of January 2016. I would imagine that this delayed hibernation was due to a very mild few months for the time of year, that then changed in January. Another surprising result was the absence of rats, but I would presume when one considers that there is one resident cat present through the night (Bauer) one Ginger cat visitor, and several foxes from 9pm - 8am, it would be a silly rat, that took the chance to grab a mouthful! This said a rat was observed on two occasions and I will discuss this later.
Up until this period it seemed that the Hedgehogs were more reliant on this food that any other visitor, this included all the foxes clumped together, the Ginger Cat, another regular to the food and any rats.
The overall percentage for each animal visitor in the 319 hours monitored are as follows;
Ginger Cat 40.7%
When each fox turned up to eat on most occasions their eating habits could only be described as snacking and on occasions caching.
If this food was something they were reliant on, one would have expected longer visits with prolonged eating, this doesn't seem to be the case. Sixty Three minutes was the highest recorded time for one fox in 11 hours (Fox1) As noted in previous studies with foxes, if another animal is eating ie in this case a hedgehog or cat, the fox would stay on site to eat. From this behavior I have always assumed the fox doesn't want to risk losing any food whilst away caching. If no other animals were present, the foxes visits to the food were short on most occasions and caching more frequent.
On several nights I changed the times when the food went down and on most occasions this shortened the overall visits of the foxes quite significantly. Suggesting to me at least, that if the food wasn't there, they went onto the next place, some of the foxes did come back earlier in the morning but on a few occasions no foxes turned up (25 th of December 2015) and on the other occasions a marked decline in time spent in the garden 6/01/2016 and the 13/01/2016. As mentioned previously this of course could be due to the fact these records are being taken through the Peak Breeding month and Peak Dispersal months.
As is often the case in the breeding season, on many mornings, some or all of the food remained, despite the fact the garden has at least three regular fox visitors throughout the night a resident cat and a visiting cat, in addition to the hedgehogs. At first light any remaining food was always taken by the birds.
From previous studies and this research I would argue the case that foxes become dependent on a food source. Yes of course they will take advantage of food but when the food is put down later than expected, the foxes go off to the next food source, they don't seem to hang around the garden waiting dependently. To further back up this theory every December / January time, householders always seem to question where their regular fox visitors have gone. This suggests to me that despite the available food the foxes will still disperse to pastures new in search of their own territory and their own mate just as they do in the countryside. Food it seems may have an impact on territory size but it doesn't seem to figure as a factor when breeding and dispersal is considered.
With regards to territory size it has already been shown that the territory of a town or city fox is smaller than that of their country cousins due in part to food availability. There is no evidence to suggest these territories are getting any smaller due to householders feeding, and most organisations, even those that advise not to feed foxes, say they see no evidence in a often claimed rising fox population. Overall litter sizes seem to remain stable at the average 4-5 cubs and I have noted that other organisations have reported a decline in fox numbers rather than a rise, so the whole argument relating to feeding foxes seems to get shot down in their next sentence.
By Feeding foxes are we encouraging foxes to attack people and enter houses?
This is always a difficult question to answer, as by doing so, we are assuming that these claimed attacks have happened and despite widespread publicity, there is no real evidence to suggest the claims are true. But if we do believe what we read in the papers then I know of not one person that would claim this to be the norm, rather the exception. To enter a house maybe one thing, but to then attack whilst there seems inconceivable. We are informed the foxes are doing this because they are likely to be starving, again this goes against the grain when the next argument is that there are so many urban foxes because of people feeding and the available food supply.
If a fox does enter a property with no fear and then goes on to bite a sleeping child or adult, we can only assume, something is seriously wrong with the fox. As these claims start a cull on all foxes in the area, it is then hard to know as to why something like this could of happened. What could be wrong with the fox that would, if the claims are true, enter a house and attack with apparently no fear when confronted. It is my belief that there are many foxes out there at the moment suffering from the condition Toxoplasmosis. This condition takes away all fear and whilst the foxes immune system tries to fight the invasion, often the fox will be left in a compromised condition. Walking around aimlessly with no fear and snapping at things that move in the belief it is food. To most observing these foxes suffering from Toxoplasmosis, the first observation they make, is in suggesting they think the fox is blind, as the fox walks around in a state that can only really be described as the ' Lights are on, but no one is home'. If the fox is able to fight the infection, in all cases we have dealt with, the fox is left with the behaviour that would mean the fox couldn't be returned back to the wild as fear levels one would expect for a wild fox are lowered significantly.
To reduce the risk of wild foxes approaching people and entering houses there are two things I would suggest people never do. One is to hand feed a wild fox. Foxes naturally have what is described as a ' Flight distance' in the countryside this flight distance could be a field, whereas in the towns and cities because the fox is used to seeing us, this distance may only be 4 - 5ft. The reason a fox will leave a flight distance is because it needs to know it can get away safely was you to suddenly become hostile. If you step a foot towards the fox, all the fox will do, is step a foot back, ensuring the FD distance is maintained. By encouraging a wild fox to eat out of your hands, you have taken away the FD, and this could lead to serious consequences to the fox, if it approaches someone else, not so fox friendly.
The second thing I would suggest people never do, is to feed a fox inside their house by encouraging a fox in the kitchen by leaving a door open, or into the sitting room by leaving the patio doors open. For a fox to have any chance of survival out there, the fox needs to know entering a property is a no no. Whilst this behaviour may be acceptable to you, what happens if the fox walks through patio doors into a property a few doors down. This behaviour could lead to the householder calling on the services of a Pest Control company, who will come out, set a cage trap, and whatever fox goes into the trap, it will be shot in the head.
By providing food for foxes will they stop hunting for themselves and could this lead to an increase in rodents as we take away their instinct to hunt?
It seems we all pick and choose what to quote from experts like Stephen Harris from Bristol University, as all the studies undertaken have shown that despite the availability of junk food available on our streets and food given as handouts by fox friendly Householders, the diet of the urban fox really doesn't differ that greatly compared to the country fox. So with more food than they really need, a town or city fox will still naturally hunt rats, mice voles, birds and will still take fruit from the bush when ripe. In the 9 - 8 study, on two occasions a rat was observed. One of these occasions (21/12/2015) the rat, very intelligently came to feed when it was raining hard. Bauer the resident cat was sheltering and sleeping in his box, no sign of any fox or the ginger cat. For 48 minutes the rat went backwards and forwards to secure the food. Once it stopped raining both the foxes and ginger cat paid attention to where the rat had last been observed.
The very next night (22/12/2015) the rat was back and hiding under the pallets. This time the weather was good and the foxes and Bauer the cat were active. On feeding from the food I supplied Fox2 spotted the rat under the pallets and went over straight away, Bauer on observing the foxes behaviour went over to investigate. For 17 minutes it seemed both cat and fox worked together as Bauer went one end the fox the other. After 12 minutes Bauer the cat gave up, but fox2 continued, despite the available food just a few feet away.
Eventually the rat made its bid for freedom and ran, with Fox2 closely behind. Since this early morning observation, no rats have been observed since. Not only does this show by feeding foxes and inadvertently feeding cats, this could actually decrease the presence of rats rather than increase. It also shows that despite available food, the fox will still hunt rodents.
By feeding foxes are we encouraging rats and mice? Is this food so kindly supplied by the householder causing foxes more harm than good?
In an average month we can send out anywhere between 300 - 700 bottles of free Sarcoptic Mange treatments to householders feeding foxes suffering from Sarcoptic Mange. In the busy months we could set between 50 - 100 cage traps for foxes suffering from life threatening injuries and or conditions. We could also be called out to rescue as many foxes.
So where do all these calls come from? In short most calls come from people who feed foxes. In an average month around 95% of our calls come from concerned householders who feed their visiting foxes nightly. Only on average do we take around 5% of these calls from people who don't feed, many of these are people who have observed a fox during or after a road traffic accident, or a collapsed fox is observed whilst out walking their dogs. Although I can't talk for other organisations I would guess the same is true for them too.
So I believe with some degree of proof, that the people who are feeding the foxes in their gardens, rather than causing the problems suggested (over-breeding, smaller territories, attacks on humans, health issues etc) the opposite is true. It is only through these people that we learn when a fox or family of foxes are suffering from Sarcoptic Mange. It is then only through these people with our help, that we can either treat the fox or foxes and or cage trap them to bring them into treat. These actions do have a positive knock on effect. The foxes in that area, then become healthy, reducing the risk of this passing to domestic animals, further reducing the risk of the mange spreading to other family members. Our research has also shown that a fox with bad mange that may otherwise have dispersed from the territory will be unlikely to do so whilst in this condition, once treated, the fox can then disperse, as it naturally would have done. So these actions ensure not only do we have a healthy fox population but also one where the cubs reach a certain age will naturally leave the territory.
Through the very people who feed foxes, we have been able to catch numerous foxes acting abnormally due to Toxoplasmosis, had these foxes been left not only is it highly likely they would have eventually died, but also due to the fact of ' no fear' one could only imagine the problems this could have caused.
For those against people who feed the foxes blaming these for encouraging foxes into the area, the above points should be considered. Also it must be said, most start to feed foxes in their gardens when they observe a fox in their garden. This means the foxes are already there and are not being encouraged. Very few people put food out each night in the hope of observing foxes. As these gardens will be part of the foxes territory, with or without food, they will still visit most nights. Give these ' Anti fox feeding' people the choice, would they rather a fox walking through their gardens at night or a family of rats living in it.
Most with perceived fox problems' are usually at their most vocal during the months of March - August. A lot of these problems relate to foxes living under sheds and then the activities of cubs and the damage that the youngsters can do to a garden. All of these are short lived problems. The vixen will usually only be underground with cubs during the months of March - June (weather dependent) and the cubs are at their most active and destructive between the months of (June - August). All of these perceived problems would still exist with or without householders feeding foxes and all of these perceived problems can be dealt with humanely with chemical repellents. Also if left, these problems always sort themselves out, as the fox cubs born in the year will usually disperse by January.
Many wildlife organisations will rightly point out that the foxes before being fed were coping adequately and whilst I would tend to agree, I would have to point out again there is a big difference to coping adequately and slowly dying of injuries or illness. Householders feeding foxes are the first to observe if something is wrong and in most cases this allows us to tackle the problem before it becomes life threatening, and if it is already life threatening it allows all of us to be able to help. I personally don't see householders feeding foxes as a problem, if anything I see them as the guardians as without these 95% of the calls we receive would stop and countless thousands of foxes would die needlessly and this too would have a knock on effect to many domestic animals in the area.
Feeding birds and hedgehogs is considered the norm, yet despite this, Hedgehogs and some birds are on the decline and we are all asked to provide food, so why not for the fox? The 9 - 8 study is a small snap shot of what is going on around the country every night of the week. So not only do foxes benefit from this food, but so too do cats, hedgehogs and birds. This study also shows that despite claims of the fox being a prolific killer of domestic and wild animals, they all seem to live side by side quite amicably and where there is any aggression it is usually the cat that starts it and finishes it.
It is through the urban fox that more people are now seeing this misunderstood and persecuted animal, for what it is. Like us, all the fox wants to do is live, and like us, it should have the right to do so. As we build into the countryside we are pushing the animals to live side by side with us, so it is us invading their gardens, rather than them invading ours. With this building work further encroaching into the 'wild areas' it is not only the foxes that are being forced to live in our towns and cities, it is also rats and mice, so foxes have their role to play and for this we should be celebrating our only wild dog in this country rather than attempting to give it a bad name.
February 2016 From 9pm - 8am
With the breeding season almost over and the occasional observations of either Itinerant (No territory) dog foxes or neighbouring dog foxes presumably trying their luck with the neighbouring vixens, these were only fleeting glimpses in the first few days of February, things after this seemed to go back to some normality.
In February, again to test the theory about feeding foxes and their reliance of this food. I decided on a two-fold increase in the food I put out each night. In addition to what went out each night anyway I increased this with dead day old chicks, approximately 15 of them each night. My thoughts behind the increase were simple, surely if nothing else, with the increase in food, this would increase the amount of time the foxes spent in the garden. In the past I have noticed more foxes seem to Cache (Bury to store for a later date) a lot of the available foods. So again with the increase of food I supplied, one would have suspected an increase in time spent in the garden, not necessarily eating, but filling their mouths to take the food away to cache.
Comparing the data for January 2016 to that of February 2016, this increase in time spent in the garden didn't seem to occur.
As the time spent observing the foxes is between 9pm through to 8am, the total minutes available for the foxes was 20460 in 31 days. The overall time spent during this period was approximately 19hrs.
The figures for February bearing in mind we were two days less than January are: Total minutes available for foxes was 19140 in 29 days. The overall time spent during this period was 18hrs
The longest duration of time spent in one hour in the garden for January 2016 was 59 minutes, yet in February 2016, the longest duration was 31 minutes.
So despite the increase in food, it is fair to say that this made no impact on the time the foxes spent in the garden. All it did appear to do, was to give them a wider choice of food and during this time the dead day old chicks became the preference, only on three days did any remain in the morning. Although the foxes did cache, this extra food played no part in increasing this. Although the food was increased two fold all this appeared to accomplish was more left over for the birds in the morning.
The Ginger cat in the 9 - 8 study seems to have almost stopped visiting for food now. 195 minutes in January 2016 compared to just 56 minutes in February 2016. This decrease in time, has nothing to do with the foxes. On most occasions when the Ginger cat came to the garden he was quickly chased out by Bauer the resident cat. On one occasion a fight actually took place. Bauer it seems now judges the garden as his territory, and although the foxes are accepted, within reason, this isn't true for any neighbouring cats.
With a two fold increase in food and the foxes not taking this and the Hedgehogs still apparently in hibernation, one would have thought any rats would have quickly taken advantage. This proved not to be the case. January 2016, 27 mins, compared to just 15 minutes in February. I have no doubt in my mind the reason the rats don't take advantage is because of Bauer the cat and the visiting foxes.
Again it would appear, there is no reliance on the food that is put out for foxes and although they take advantage of the food that is offered it would also seem that for the most part they are also seeking food elsewhere based on the overall time they spend in the garden and of what remains of the food in the morning.
When neighbours complain about people feeding foxes and this encourages foxes into the gardens, I think the above proves this not to be the case. With all the hours available for the foxes to spend in the garden, they spent approximately just 4% of their time in both January and February doing so.