Foxes

helpwildlife.co.uk provides a directory of around 400 wildlife rescues in the UK who can help with wildlife casualties

Foxes have been in the news a lot recently with several alleged attacks on children being reported. But, even before this, they were one of our more controversial mammals. Their adaptability has led them to successfully colonise our gardens putting them in frequent contact with humans and inevitably leading to friction. Here we will try to answer some common questions and accusations and suggest some practical ways to reduce the impact unwanted fox visitors have on your life.

Are my children at risk from foxes?
Are my cats at risk from foxes?
Are my rabbits/guinea pigs/chickens etc at risk from foxes?
Why are fox numbers increasing so much?
Why aren’t foxes scared of people any more?
Can I/my pets catch anything from foxes?
I have foxes visiting my garden and they are causing a nuisance e.g. digging, fouling, making noise. What can I do to get rid of them?
Why not just have it killed?
What about having it trap and released elsewhere, maybe back in the countryside where it belongs??
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This one is so simple to answer – no. There have been a tiny number of reported incidents of foxes harming humans and none of these have been independently verified. It’s important not to use the word attack too easily – an attack means to take aggressive action against. Foxes are not aggressive animals and they do not see humans as potential food. They are, however, very curious animals and it’s most likely that occasions where they have bitten people are either attempts to defend themselves from a threat (for example, in the case where a child pulled on the tail of a fox which was protruding from under a building) or them curiously exploring something with their teeth. Basic common sense can prevent these incidents – never try to touch a wild animal and ensure that your home is secure so that wild animals cannot get in.

  • Are my cats at risk from foxes?

Highly unlikely. Whilst foxes will certainly take and eat a dead cat, perhaps one hit by a car, there is very little evidence of them attacking healthy cats. The average weight of a fox is 5kg, the same as the average cat. Foxes are omnivorous scroungers whose prey tends to be insects, amphibians and rodents. They are not equipped to tackle an animal of equal weight with a formidable set of claws. They’re simply not that brave and there are far, far easier meals to be had! A study of nearly 2000 fox droppings found just 8 of them contained cat fur. Of course even that doesn’t mean that those foxes actually killed cats. Most often, cats and foxes coexist without issue but there are many reports (and videos on youtube) of cats chasing foxes out of their gardens. It is sensible to keep your cats in at night both in order to protect them from harm and to protect your local wildlife from them.

  • Are my rabbits/guinea pigs/chickens etc at risk from foxes?

Yes, of course. These are prey animals of just the right size for a small omnivore like a fox to take. However, this risk is extremely easy to mitigate. All pets should be housed in secure accommodation using strong mesh – chicken wire is not sufficient – with a roof and floor to prevent access by other animals. They should be shut away safely at night and housing should be closed using padlocks, not just twist latches. It is absolutely the responsibility of any pet owner to ensure that their pet is kept safe from threats including wild predators.

There are often accusations that foxes kill for fun. This is not true – only humans are guilty of this. The old story of a fox in a hen house killing more than it can eat is easily explained. A fox is stimulated to kill by the presence, sound, smell and movement of a prey animal. If there is one such animal it will kill one. If there are thirty its instincts tell it to keep killing. Bear in mind that nowhere in nature would a prey species be congregated and confined in such a small area. The fox lacks the foresight to understand how many it can and can’t eat. It is operating on a purely instinctive level.

In fact, evidence suggests that, overall, fox numbers are stable. There are some areas where their numbers have increased and others where they have fallen and it’s thought that the overall effect leaves population numbers about the same as they were 15 years ago. Foxes are an apex predator – they do not rely on a predator to control their numbers and their population size is dictated by available territory and food. It’s possible that there may be small areas of increased population where there is high availability of food but, as a trade off, high numbers of foxes in a small area increase the chance of them sharing diseases such as mange which then has the effect of reducing the numbers again.

The vast majority of foxes remain very timid creatures. Inevitably, foxes living in an urban environment become more accustomed to the presence of humans and become a little more relaxed in our presence but are still far from tame. There is however a dangerous trend of people feeding foxes in a way which is inappropriate. By all means feed foxes in your garden but it is inadvisable to let them associate humans with food, feed them on a plate or attempt to hand feed them. If feeding foxes it is best to scatter food around the garden before dark so they do not see you put it out. Keep amounts small and don’t feed them every night (unless treating them for an illness or injury). Allowing foxes to associate humans with food can cause them to become tame and to behave inappropriately e.g. coming into houses. Foxes are wild animals and it is essential that we remember and respect that.

There is also some evidence from wildlife rescuers that foxes affected by toxoplasmosis display altered behaviour. If you do see a fox behaving strangely then contact your local wildlife rescue for advice.

In theory foxes do suffer from several ailments which humans and dogs can also contract. However, the chances of catching something from an animal are directly relative to the amount of contact you have with them. Unless you are handling a fox or his faeces it is extremely unlikely that you would ever contract an illness from them. There is a slightly higher risk that your dog could pick up sarcoptic mange if a fox affected with this parasite spends a considerable amount of time in your garden. If you are concerned, follow the advice about deterring foxes from your garden below. Healthy dogs do not often get mange (there is a link between general health and mange) and it is simple to treat if they do. Although it can be fatal for a wild fox, this is usually a result of secondary bacterial infections caused by prolonged scratching. There is no reason it should be a serious condition in a well cared for pet.

The most effective approach to reducing foxes’ presence in your garden is to remove what is attracting them there in the first place. Your garden may be attractive to foxes because of the availability of food, because its environment offers good cover, because it contains a good den site or because it is on a territory boundary. These basic tips will help to make your garden less interesting

– Remove food put out for pets or other wildlife
– Ensure outdoor pets such as rabbits and chickens are housed securely and shut away at night
– Do your composting in a secure compost bin
– Clear away windfall fruit
– Place all refuse in wheely bins
– Tidy up any overgrown areas
– Avoid the use of bone meal as a fertiliser – to a fox this just smells like cached food
– Ensure that structures such as sheds, garages, greenhouses and coal bunkers are secure and foxes cannot dig underneath them. It is estimated that as many as 75% of fox dens in urban areas are beneath sheds
– Block access to your pond with netting or plants to prevent the foxes using it as a water source

If this is insufficient to solve your issue then you can look at actively deterring the fox from your garden. This can be done by upsetting the fox using sight, sound or smell.

– Install commercially available devices which flash red LED lights when activated by movement
– Install a motion activated security light so the fox feels more exposed in your garden
– Utilise a sonic deterrent device which emits a noise at a frequency inaudible to humans but which foxes find irritating
– Use chemical deterrents such as Scoot – these are designed to disrupt the foxes’ efforts to scent mark the area making them believe the territory is taken and encouraging them to move on. These products are especially useful where fouling by foxes is your main concern and when applied directly to the fox’s scat. Only use products licensed for this purpose otherwise you will be breaking the law.

There are a growing number of humane pest control companies as well as other sources of advice – see Recommended Links below for more.

All too often the removal of a pest simply provides a space into which individuals from the surrounding area may be drawn and the colony soon recovers and the problems caused by the pest persist.

– Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Investigation of the use of semiochemicals for vertebrate pest population control, 2001.

As discussed above, the most effective method of “pest control” is to remove what is attracting the animal to the area. If you have a fox killed, all the things which attracted him to your garden are still there. As foxes are territorial animals, another fox will soon fill the vacant territory and find your garden interesting for the same reasons.

It’s worth noting that local councils in the UK do not offer a fox control service. This is because it would be expensive and ineffective. Most councils have advice about fox control on their website and most, like us, advise that the best approach is to discourage and deter.

Trapping foxes is ineffective for exactly the same reasons as killing them – another fox will simply move in and take over. It is a myth to suggest that foxes belong in the country. A fox born in an urban area would not thrive in a rural environment. The fox is a territorial animal and to dump it in the middle of an alien area will be extremely distressing for the animal. It will struggle to find food, will be challenged by resident foxes and be more prone to being killed on unknown roads. Trapping and releasing a fox away from its own territory would likely be an offense under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and/or the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960.

Recommended Links

foxolutions.co.uk – sells products to assist with fox deterrence

foxproject.org.uk – charity offering advice about humane deterrence

nfws.org.uk – charity offering advice about human deterrence

fox-a-gon.co.uk – a humane deterrence service for individuals, companies and organisations, particularly in London and the south east

humanewildlifesolutions.co.uk – award winning company offering a humane wildlife deterrence service on the Scottish borders

jbryant.co.uk – a humane deterrence service for individuals, companies and organisations, particularly in London and the south east

thefoxwebsite.org – science led site produced by Bristol University with a wealth of information about foxes and their behaviour

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