Urban foxes: Conflicts

An angry cat

Foxes can be a nuisance to gardeners and allotment owners because of fouling, digging or damaging garden plants. Moreover, in autumn and winter, the main dispersal and breeding seasons, foxes can be heard screaming and barking and thus disturbing people's sleep or prompting dogs to bark. However, foxes cause little serious nuisance in towns and most problems are easily solved by using commercially available repellents or simple advice on how to deter foxes from gardens (link to an external website).

Foxes kill very few pets, and very few rifle dustbins. In Bristol, where 5480 households were surveyed, only 2.7% reported that foxes frequently rifled their dustbins, 16.4% occasionally and 80.9% never. With the introduction of wheelie bins, this low level of nuisance has disappeared.

In reality, the majority of people like urban foxes. In a survey about wildlife in their garden completed by nearly 4000 household across Britain, 65.7% liked urban foxes, 25.8% had no strong views and only 8.5% disliked urban foxes. In a recent survey by The Mammal Society foxes were voted one of the most popular British mammals.

Question & Answer

TopHow can I keep my pet safe from foxes?

If you know that foxes regularly visit your garden, ensure that pets are caged each night in a pen with:

  1. a weld-mesh front (not chicken wire, which is not fox proof)
  2. a solid floor so that foxes cannot dig underneath
  3. a secure lock that cannot be worked loose (i.e. not a latch)

TopHow can I protect my cat from foxes?

A cat on a chair
Foxes and cats generally ignore each other

Whilst risks to cats are very low, and foxes and cats generally ignore each other, keeping cats indoors at night further reduces the risks.

Keeping cats indoors at night is also beneficial to local wildlife. Domestic cats are skilled predators that prey on a great variety of species. For example, in a survey on predation of wildlife by domestic cats in Great Britain, the commonest item brought home were wild mammals (69% of all items), followed by birds (24%), amphibians (4%), reptiles (1%), fish (less than 1%), invertebrates (1%) and unidentified prey (1%). In Britain, there are approximately 9 million cats (about 800,000 feral and 8 million pet cats) and the study estimated that the during the 5-month survey period, the British cat population brought home 52-63 million mammals, 25-29 million birds and 4-6 million reptiles and amphibians. There are difficulties in estimating these numbers for a number of reasons. First, not all cats kill wildlife and there is a great deal of variation in individual cat behaviour: some cats kill many more prey than others. Moreover, not all killed prey is brought home. A detailed study of ten sites in Bristol found a mean density of 348 cats per square kilometre: mean bird densities were just 1.17 adult birds and 3.07 juvenile birds per cat. Thus even very low levels of predation by cats is likely to have an impact: the most commonly taken species were ground foraging birds such as blackbirds, dunnocks, house sparrows and robins.

A cat looking at his reflection on a glass door
Keeping cats indoors is beneficial to wildlife and to your pet too

In another study in south-eastern Michigan all landowners (1694) along breeding bird survey routes (120 km) were surveyed to assess the effect of cat predation on bird populations. The study found that there were 800-3100 cats allowed free access to the outdoors, predating 16,000-47,000 birds during the breeding season. The authors of the study concluded that, using the conservative figures on predation levels, cats were likely to be having an impact on breeding bird populations.

Several studies have shown that cats living on the outskirts of urban areas and those living in rural areas bring home more prey and a greater variety of prey than cats living in more urbanized environments. If we consider that domestic cats are popular pets worldwide, they have the potential to significantly affect prey species in both rural and urban areas. However, not all studies have found possible detrimental effects of cat predation on wildlife. For instance, a study in Canberra, Australia, found that house cats predated invasive species of rodents and birds and that this, in turn, may have a positive effect on native wildlife.

  • Benefits of keeping cats indoors:
    • In general, cats live healthier and longer lives in kept indoors;
    • Cats kept indoors are less likely to be involved in road traffic accidents;
    • They are also less likely to contract diseases or be attacked by dogs or other animals;
    • Keeping cats indoors at night will reduce predation on mammals (as most mammals are nocturnal) but not on birds;
  • Benefits of fitting your cat with a bell/sonic collar:
    • Some studies have shown that fitting cats with a bell or sonic collar reduces the number of mammals and birds killed, although not all studies are concordant.

TopHow do I prevent a fox from coming into my garden?

The Fox Project runs an excellent Deterrent Helpline and also provides a leaflet with useful advice on how to discourage foxes from gardens. For instance, making cat, bird or other food unavailable to foxes will make a garden less attractive to foxes or using fertilizers that do not contain fish, bone or blood products will stop foxes from digging in flowerbeds or lawns in search of a non-existent carcass. Anti Fox Security also offer deterrence services.

TopHow do I get rid of a fox from under a shed?

A picture of a shed against the skyline

If foxes are denning under your shed, just soak some rags or straw with a deterrent (available at most garden centres) and loosely block all the holes, which are the entrances to the den.

Do not block the holes with bricks as this will prevent the female from getting to the cubs and they will starve to death. Each morning replace the rags and straw in the hole. Once the rags or straw have not been moved for a couple of days, there will be no foxes left under your shed and you can permanently block the holes.

TopHow do I prevent foxes from denning underneath my shed/house?

It is important to ensure that all holes around a shed/house are adequately blocked with sturdy materials. Foxes can use holes all year round, but denning with cubs is largely restricted to the period from March to June. As above, it is important to lightly infill holes and to only block holes properly once the infill is not disturbed for a few days. It is important to make doubly sure no foxes are under your shed/house before permanently blocking holes.

TopDo foxes attack children/people?

A large white Staffordshire bullterrier type of dog barking
The risk of injury from dogs and cats is much higher than that of foxes

Occasionally the press reports attacks on children that are said to be by foxes, but very often the bite wounds do not appear to be typical fox bites. It is not impossible that a child could be bitten by a fox but, if it occurs, it is extremely rare. In comparison, the risk of injury from domestic dogs and cats is very much higher. For example, in the USA about 5 million people are bitten by dogs each year and 15 to 20 people die from dog bites yearly. Most of the victims are children. Similarly, there are more than 400,000 cat bites each year in the USA. There are no good statistics from Britain, but it is likely that the number of dog and cat bites is around a fifth of those recorded in the USA. Even in countries where rabies is present, humans are much more likely to be bitten by a rabid domestic dog than by a fox.

The risks of people being attacked by a fox are negligible compared to the risks of being attacked by a domestic dog or cat.

References

  • Anonymous. Dog Bite Law.
  • Baker, P. & Harris, S. (2007) Urban mammals: what does the future hold? An analysis of the factors affecting patterns of use of residential gardens in Great Britain. Mammal Review, in press
  • Baker, P.J., Molony, S.E., Stone, E., Cuthill, I.C. & Harris, S. (2008) Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, in press.
  • Barratt, D.G. (1998) Predation by house cats, Felis catus (L.), in Canberra, Australia. II. Factors affecting the amount of prey caught and estimates of the impact on wildlife. Wildlife Research 25, 475-487.
  • Harris, S. (1981) The food of suburban foxes (Vulpes vulpes), with special reference to London. Mammal Review 11, 151-168.
  • Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G. & Liu, J. (2003) Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes. Biological Conservation 115, 191-201.
  • Nelson, S.H., Evans, A.D. & Bradbury, R.B. (2005) The efficacy of collar-mounted devices in reducing the rate of predation of wildlife by domestic cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 94, 273-285.
  • Rochlitz, I. (2005) A review of the housing requirements of domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) kept in the home. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 93, 97-109.
  • Woods, M., McDonald R.A. & Harris, S. (2003) Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain. Mammal Review 33, 174-188.