Should we Feed Foxes in our gardens?

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

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.

Fox and cat take advantage of food left out
Fox and cat take advantage of food left out

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;  

Hedgehogs 164.6%

Foxes 178.8%

Ginger Cat 40.7%

Rats 14%                      

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