Foxes & agriculture: Agricultural benefits

A rat on a bin
Brown rat

Rabbits are one of the main agricultural pests in Britain. In the mid-1980s, damage by rabbits caused an estimated loss of £120 million, compared to badgers, causing losses of up to £60 million, and brown rats and house mice together, caused losses of up to £30 million.

Foxes caused about £12 million of losses but this needs to be put in perspective by considering that rabbits are the main prey of foxes in rural areas. By eating rabbits, the adult fox population provides an indirect economic benefit to farmers of at least £7 million annually (using a conservative estimate). Because fox benefits to agriculture largely offset their costs, foxes are probably economically neutral to farmers.

A few numbers

Coins stacked up Rabbits cause most agricultural losses but farmers tend to underestimate their losses due to rabbit grazing. At 1998 prices, one study estimated that, each year, a single rabbit would cost a farmer £6.50 eating winter wheat, £1.40 eating spring barley and £3.40 eating grazing pasture.

A rabbit amongst vegetetaion
Rabbit make up the largest proportion of the diet of foxes in rural areas

In rural areas of Britain, 45% to 70% of the diet of foxes is made up by rabbits. During its lifetime, by eating rabbits each fox might be worth £150-£900 in increased revenue to farmers.

In areas with high levels of predator control, where fox density is lower, rabbit density is higher and there seems to a negative link between predator control and rabbit abundance, i.e. rabbits seem to thrive where there are fewer foxes.

Forestry and foxes

A young tree sapling in a woodland

At high densities, field voles can cause serious damage to young commercial trees. Field voles are commonly eaten by foxes so that foxes, together with other predators, probably have a significant impact on field voles numbers.

One study estimated that the number of field voles in Britain was only just adequate to support existing predator populations, and that four predators - fox, kestrel, weasel and feral cat - accounted for more 85% of the estimated consumption of field voles. Thus, although there are no studies into the benefits of foxes to forestry, it is probable that foxes are helping reduce economic losses to forestry. In commercial forests, foxes are most common in young plantations where populations of field voles and rabbits are highest and where most damage occurs.

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References

  • Baker, P., Boitani, L., Harris, S., Saunders, G. & White, P.C.L. (2008) Terrestrial carnivores and human food production: impact and management. Mammal Review 38, 123-166.
  • Baker, P., Furlong, M., Southern, S. & Harris, S. (2006) The potential impact of red fox predation in agricultural landscapes in lowland Britain. Wildlife Biology 12, 39-50.
  • Baker, P., Harris, S. & White, P.C.L. (2006) After the hunt - the future for foxes in Britain. International Fund for Animal Welfare, London.

Download After the hunt. (PDF file, 1.7 Mb). Available with permission from IFAW

  • Baines, R., Baker, S., Hallett, J. & Macdonald, D. (1995) The impact of foxes and fox hunting on the management of Wiltshire county farms estate. Report to Wiltshire County Council, Occasional Paper No. 22, Royal Agricultural College/University of Oxford, Oxford.
  • Chadwick, A.H., Hodge, S.J. & Ratcliffe, P.R. (1997) Foxes and forestry. Forestry Commission, Edinburgh.
  • Dendy, J., McKillop, I.G., Fox, S.M. & Western, G.J. (2003) Quantifying the costs of crop damage by rabbits. In: Conservation and conflict - farming and mammals (Eds F. Tattersall & W.J. Manly). Westbury Publishing, Otley, West Yorkshire.
  • Dyczkowski, J. & Yalden, D.W. (1998) An estimate of the impact of predators on the British field vole Microtus agrestis population. Mammal Review 28, 165-184.
  • Gill, R.M.A. (1992) A review of damage by mammals in north temperate forests: 2. Small mammals. Forestry 65, 281-308.
  • Macdonald, D.W. (1984) A questionnaire survey of farmers' opinions and actions towards wildlife on farmlands. In: Agriculture and the environment (Ed. D. Jenkins). ITE Monks Wood, Huntingdon.
  • Macdonald. D.W., Reynolds, J.C., Carbone, C., Mathews, F & Johnson, P.J. (2003) The bio-economics of fox control. In: Conservation and conflict - farming and mammals (Eds F. Tattersall & W.J. Manly). Westbury Publishing, Otley, West Yorkshire.
  • Mills, S. (1986) Rabbits breed a growing controversy. New Scientist 1498, 50-54.
  • Moberly, R.L., White, P.C.L. & Harris, S. (2002) The costs of foxes to agricultural interests in Britain. Report to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Southwater, West Sussex.
  • Moore, N., Whiterow, A., Kelly, P., Garthwaite, D., Bishop, J., Langton, S. & Cheeseman, C. (1999) Survey of badger Meles meles damage to agriculture in England and Wales. Journal of Applied Ecology 36, 974-988.
  • Webbon, C.C., Baker, P.J., Cole, N.C. & Harris, S. (2006) Macroscopic prey remains in the winter diet of foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in rural Britain. Mammal Review 36, 85-97.
  • White, P.C.L. & Harris, S. (2002) Economic and environmental costs of alien vertebrate species in Britain. In: Biological invasions - economic and environmental costs of alien plant, animal, and microbe species (Ed. D. Pimentel). CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.