The Fox Project has rescued around 7500 foxes in the past twenty-one years and has yet to find a starving adult fox.
Some folk suppose urban foxes do not know how to hunt, but, although scavenging is preferable to any fox, and uses less energy than hunting, urban foxes are just as adept at catching rats, mice, voles, rabbits and birds as their country cousins.
Conversely, rural foxes are no less dependent on scavenged food than their city counterparts. Although a necessary skill, particularly when more easily acquired food is unavailable, hunting is unlikely to be the preferred way of life for any fox.
Foxes do not depend on man’s generosity to keep them alive and we should bear in mind that a liking for foxes is not necessarily a view shared by all.
Many householders are avid fox-feeders, delighted to see foxes in their gardens. They love to watch the cubs playing and some put out food in order to attract them.
This seemingly positive attitude to wildlife can have two detrimental results.
Foxes are lazy by nature and, if too much food is provided, your foxes may allow their territory to contract, losing much of it to other foxes simply because they see no point in defending the larger area. Suddenly, you are in hospital or on holiday and the food source dries up. The only way your foxes will find enough food is to go back to the old ways. But the old territory is no longer theirs. Other foxes that have become established in these areas will not take kindly to sharing their resources, and trouble – even war – may ensue.
A second problem is that foxes may not eat everything provided. They will bury food surplus to their requirements. Perhaps they will return to these caches. Perhaps they will not. If the food is cached in the flowerbed of someone with an ‘anti’ attitude, they may decide to solve their problem by employing a ‘pest controller’. You could kill by kindness.
But if you are determined to feed foxes, what should you provide? Obviously, as one of Britain’s largest carnivores,meat protein is the first essential. Natural prey, and the result of scavenging road kill provides roughage in the form of fur, feather and bone and a fox’s metabolism benefits from a high proportion of roughage.
As an opportunist, the fox will take advantage of any available food, and what is found in a rural area may vary from what is found in suburbia. Also, some favourites, such as cranefly larvae, cockchafer grubs and soft or fallen fruit are seasonal.
The best available research indicates 95% of an average rural fox’s diet consists of meat, both hunted and scavenged, and mainly rabbits, rats, birds and small mammals. Insects and worms may constitute another 4% and the remaining 1% may consist of fruit.
However, in an urban area, natural prey and scavenged meat may cover only 55% of diet. Insects and worms add a hefty 20%, fruit – 7%, with household leftovers making up the remaining 18%.
It is often possible to tell from fox droppings what food is presently in favour – or in season. Good, healthy droppings are black and well formed. A twist at one end will indicate fur or hair in the diet, suggesting scavenged or hunted prey. Sloppy faeces may suggest an excess of fruit, which is readily available in late summer.
If you wish to feed foxes, please do so with some consideration towards neighbours, who may inherit discarded food. Avoid large items such as bones or bread slices. These are too easily removed and dropped elsewhere.
We would also recommend feeding with an eye to balancing protein and roughage – both important to a fox’s metabolism. Canned dog food is fine. Peanuts are also popular, cannot be carried away, and will satisfy a fox’s ‘sweet tooth’, and, because these small items take more time to gather, you will have the opportunity to watch foxes in your garden for longer periods without causing problems to your neighbours.
It is worth remembering – foxes don’t need us. They have always coped. They always will.
For more information about fox ecology, our book “Unearthing the Urban Fox” is available to order on 01892 824111.