In the UK, we have one species of fox – the Red Fox aka Vulpes Vulpes. They are intelligent and versatile animals who have been able to adapt to living in towns and cities. Unfortunately this can sometimes put them in conflict with humans. However, there is a lot of misinformation and myth surrounding them leading some to consider them dangerous to people or pets. Truthfully, foxes are usually scavengers and aren’t aggressive, though they will take unsecured small pets. Most of the conflicts are examples of their curious and cheeky natures and issues can invariably be solved using some understanding of their behaviour. 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.
First of all, let’s clear up some misunderstandings…
- Are my children at risk from foxes?
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 also 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.
- Why are fox numbers increasing so much?
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.
- Why aren’t foxes scared of people any more?
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 too comfortable with us 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 as there may be a medical reason behind it.
- Aren’t foxes full of disease/a health risk?
In theory, foxes do suffer from some 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, though this is rare. 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.
With the myths dispelled, lets talk about some of the issues foxes can cause.
- Rabbit/Guinea Pig/Chicken predation
Foxes are mostly scavengers but will take ‘easy’ prey. Rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens are prey animals of just the right size for a small omnivore like a fox to take and keeping them in enclosures makes them very easy to catch. 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. 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.
Foxes digging in your garden is usually for one of three main reasons.
1. Seeking food
This can be caused by using fertilisers such as bone meal which smell like potential food to the fox. Or the fox may be digging to look for worms and beetles.
2. Creating a den
This will usually be a larger hole at the base of a tree or under a shed for example. Clearing the area so it is more ‘exposed’ will make it less attractive to the fox. Blocking the den once it’s in use is illegal.
Particularly around September when the cubs leave their parents, you might notice increased activity in your garden as the cubs seek out territories and practice the skills they need to survive. This will usually pass in a few weeks when they settle down to start breeding.
Any garden will see wildlife passing through and all wildlife will need to relieve themselves occasionally. But if you have repeated offerings from foxes it may be that your property is on the edge of a territory and the fox is defecating there as a signal to others. Follow the advice about making your garden less attractive to foxes below.
Foxes emit a fairly distinctive and slightly chilling ‘shriek’ as a form of communication. You may find this particularly noticeable around January time when the foxes are mating. This increased noise won’t last for more than a few weeks. If the talkative individuals are visiting your garden, following the advice for deterrence below should help.
Foxes aren’t malicious or nasty but they certainly are cheeky and mischievous. There are plenty of incidents caught on camera of them picking up dog or children’s toys and playing with them. But no-one taught them what is and isn’t a suitable toy the way you did your child or puppy so most things are fair game. They will ‘steal’ plant pots, shoes, gloves, and pretty much anything else which is small and easy to throw about for fun. The solution here is simple, I’m afraid. Don’t leave anything important in reach!
The problem with lethal control
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.
Well there’s the obvious issues such as it’s cruel, unnecessary and unfair to take an animal’s life simply because it is causing you inconvenience. Aside from that it is difficult and dangerous. Attempting to shoot them using an air rifle or similar is dangerous and difficult for obvious reasons and your chances of hitting one accurately enough to provide a humane death are minute. It is illegal to use poison to kill foxes or to gas them in their dens. But above all it will not solve your problem!
If you kill the fox who is digging up your flower beds, hanging around your rabbits or stealing your shoes, but still use bonemeal, leave your rabbits in a insecure hutch and your garden shoes outside, another fox will soon move in to the now-vacant territory and repeat the same behaviours.
- What about having it trapped and released elsewhere, maybe back in the countryside where it belongs?
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 offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
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.
Integrated Wildlife Management is a more intelligent, science-led approach to ‘pest-control’. Rather than simply shooting or poisoning the ‘offending’ creature, which will only bring about a very temporary solution, it uses an understanding of wildlife behaviour and ecology to find a holistic, humane and effective long term solution.
The most effective method of resolving a wildlife conflict is to remove what is attracting the animal – usually this is food, shelter, and nesting sites. 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
- Cease use of blood or bone based fertilisers
- Clear up any food such as pet food, spilt bird food or fallen fruit
- Do your composting in a secure compost bin
- Place all refuse in wheely bins
- Tidy up any overgrown areas which might be providing shelter
- Ensure that structures such as sheds, garages, greenhouses and coal bunkers are secure and foxes cannot dig underneath them
- 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.
- Sight – Install commercially available devices which flash red LED lights when activated by movement, or a motion activated security light so the fox feels more exposed in your garden
- Sound – Utilise a sonic deterrent device which emits a noise at a frequency inaudible to humans but which foxes may find irritating
- Smell – 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 also growing number of humane pest control companies using the same holistic principles as us. You can find details of some here.
The following websites also offer advice on fox deterrence and/or sell deterrent products
The Fox Project