Urban foxes: Diet

A graph showing the diet of foxes in Bristol
The diet composition of urban foxes in Bristol. Data from Urban foxes
Text description of this file is available on a separate page

Foxes are omnivorous, i.e. they will eat anything. Their diet depends on the food available in the area where they live. In Bristol, London and Oxford the largest component of their diet is scavenged items such as meat, bones, bread and bird food. Wild mammals, birds and invertebrates are also common.

'Invertebrates' is a category that includes earthworms and insects, such as beetles, cutworms (moth larvae) and adult craneflies (daddy-long-legs). For instance, in Bristol insects make up to nearly 10% of a fox diet and earthworms about 6%.

In certain areas, the majority of scavenged food is not scavenged at all, but it is provided by local residents. In Bristol in the early 1990s, 10% of residents regularly fed foxes.

A graph showing the diet of foxes in London
The diet composition of urban foxes in London. Data from Urban foxes
Text description of this file is available on a separate page

Since foxes are very adaptable and eat whatever food is available, fox diet varies locally; in London, for instance, wild mammals, birds and invertebrates compose a larger part of the diet than in Bristol. But this is diet for London as a whole. In industrial areas in London, for instance, foxes eat more rats and pigeons than in the urban fringes.

Diet also varies seasonally: foxes eat more earthworms and birds in spring and early summer, more mammals in winter, insects in summer and fruit in the autumn.

Question & Answer

TopShould I feed foxes?

If you want to encourage foxes to visit your garden, there is no reason why you should not feed them. However, if you live in an area where the disease alveolar echinococcosis is present (not in Britain), you should be aware of the risks to avoid infection.

Once a fox learns that it can find food on a regular basis, it will visit your garden frequently. However, foxes should never be hand-fed or over-fed. Tame foxes learn to approach any person (even those that don't want to be approached) or even attempt to enter houses via a cat flap or an open door, a situation that could frighten many people. Over-feeding is also to be avoided as this can cause problems with fouling in small areas or in a few neighbouring gardens.

TopDo foxes eat pets?

A young rabbit on a lawn
Foxes occasionally eat pets

Foxes occasionally eat pets, especially if they are not housed securely. However, losses of pets are minimal.

In Bristol, the maximum annual loss was 0.2 pets per fox (i.e. a fox ate a pet once every five years) at one of the highest density of urban foxes ever recorded. Securely housing your pet will decrease any risks of predation by foxes.

TopDo foxes eat cats?

In an area of north-west Bristol with 1,225 pet cats, 8 (0.7%) were killed by foxes in a year and these were mainly kittens. This is an area with a high density of foxes and pet cats: one average fox home range included about 100 pet cat ranges, this is about 1 fox per 100 cats. Foxes can kill cats but this is rare and it is more likely that a cat will be run over by a car than killed by fox. This is not surprising as both species are predators armed with teeth and claws and are of similar size. Moreover, in Bristol fox densities were high; at lower, more common densities, it is likely that fewer pets will be lost.

TopDo foxes rifle dustbins?

a dustbin
Foxes rarely rifle bins

This is a common misconception: foxes do eat scavenged food but this is generally provided by people. In a questionnaire survey of 5480 households, 80.9% reported that their dustbins were never rifled, 16.4% occasionally and only 2.7% frequently. Moreover, these are maximum figures as domestic dogs, cats, badgers and sea gulls also rifle dustbins but people normally assume foxes are to blame.

Magazines often publish photographs showing a dustbin lying on its side with a fox going through the waste that is spread out in front of the bin. These are manufactured scenes. Foxes are far too small to tip over a dustbin full of rubbish. To scavenge food from bins, they knock the lid off and jump into the upright bin. It is easy to stop this: put an elasticated strap with a hook at each end of through the dustbin lid and hook it to the handle on each side of the bin.

In many cities where dustbins have been replaced with wheelie bins, rifling is no longer a problem as these bins are out of reach of most urban wildlife.

TopAre foxes in the city starving?

Foxes in our cities are not starving. Quite the opposite! In urban areas there is normally more than enough food to support foxes. A recent study in Bristol found that on each fox territory there is at least 150 times as much food available as is needed by each fox. Having said that, if you wish to feed foxes to watch them in your garden, there is nothing wrong with that.

References

  • Baker, P., Funk, S., Harris, S., Newman, T., Saunders, G. & White, P.C.L. (2004) The impact of human attitudes on the social and spatial organization of urban foxes (Vulpes vulpes) before and after an outbreak of sarcoptic mange. In: Proceedings of the 4th international symposium on urban wildlife conservation (Eds W.W. Shaw, L.K. Harris & L. Vandruff). University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
  • Harris, S. (1981) The food of suburban foxes (Vulpes vulpes), with special reference to London. Mammal Review 11, 151-168.
  • Harris, S. & Baker, P. (2001) Urban foxes. Whittet Books, Suffolk.