Pests news from BPCA

07 March 2019

PESTWATCH: Foxes

Technical | PPC94 March 2019

When is a pest not a pest? In this in-depth PestWatch analysis, BPCA's Natalie Bungay returns to the tricky and occasionally prickly subject of Vulpes vulpes – the red fox. She’ll focus on the whens, whys and ifs of fox control.

Are you foxing clever

HABITAT

The red fox is found in rural, urban and suburban areas throughout mainland Britain, making the fox a familiar sighting, for many.
The red fox is mostly nocturnal although they may still be seen in the daytime if not laid up in suitable covers such as overgrown bushes, cemeteries, railway lines or other similar undisturbed areas.

Foxes may go to ground in earths or dens.

Earths may be specifically dug, taken over and enlarged rabbit holes, or may even be part of a badger sett. A makeshift den can be created by a fox underneath a shed or even a buildings floor cavity. This latter activity is what usually spurs the public to get in touch with a pest management company to advise on control.

Many pest companies do not have the in-house resources or knowledge to carry out fox control in a legal, effective and socially acceptable way. In my opinion - the social issues are the trickiest to overcome.

The control of majestic Mr Fox can certainly upset the neighbours, with many people in the UK having a particular affection for the red fox.

WHY CONTROL FOXES?

With greater availability of food in urban areas, the ever-cunning fox has moved closer and closer to human habitation, bringing with it a host of health concerns.

Foxes might kill small domestic pets, however, this is rare. Often foxes are chased off by a pet.

Livestock such as chickens can be targeted by foxes. They regularly kill the entire population, which is perceived as far more than they actually need to. In reality, the fox intends to return for the extra corpses later. We usually discover the massacre before this happens and therefore wrongfully assume it was a random act of brutality!

Nevertheless, the destruction of livestock can be incredibly distressing for the owner.

Livestock aside, foxes raid bins, spreading mess and disease. The mess they make encourage other pests to take up residences such as rats and some fly species.

Even their mating calls (screams) can be very distressing to the average person. It can often be likened to the sound of a screaming woman in utter distress and this can then instigate calls to the police from concerned residents.

Like any other mammal, foxes often carry a range of parasites and diseases that can be passed on to humans and domestic pets. Cats and dogs are far more likely than humans to pick up something nasty from a fox, but the risk of exposure to rabies, leptospirosis, salmonella, campylobacter, e.coli or bovine tuberculosis (TB) from direct contact with a fox cannot be discounted.

Roundworm (Toxocara canis) may be another consideration. The organism can cause blindness in children, although there are no known cases of children contracting this from foxes in the UK.

Foxes will eat virtually anything, from rodents to amphibians to leftovers scavenged from humans. It’s this latter food source that brings them closer to us, seeking the much-desired take away discarded on the floor from the night before or, ransacking the waste bins scattered over most cities and towns. This easy food source is an example of how pest species take advantage of our haphazard food containment!

Fox facts

WHEN ARE FOXES A PEST?

It’s important to address a possibly unsavoury fact about fox control – particularly for those companies that specialise: it is quite common for fox control to be unnecessary.


If a specific building or area of human habitation experiences foxes underneath their foundations or digging under a garden shed then fox removal may be acceptable. If a school field is being defecated on (causing health issues) then exclusion can be considered.

But, taking a broader look at city or town populations, controlling urban foxes in a practical manner is difficult, expensive, and rarely successful. Several local authorities have tried, particularly in England. Most have now given up any form of fox control. Foxes have been in urban areas for so long that they have reached a state of equilibrium, and regulate their own population size.

It’s estimated that there is a mortality rate of 50% per annum, mostly being road deaths. This may sound high, but it is actually much lower than foxes could sustain. A large proportion of foxes do not breed each year, and litter sizes are comparatively small (average is under five cubs). The moment you increase the mortality rate through active pest control, the foxes compensate by increasing the number of vixens that breed. So you do not reduce the number of foxes in the area.

What you do achieve, however, is a disruption of the fox population, so that new foxes move in to try to take over the territory of the animal that has been killed. Invariably more than one fox moves in, there are fights over the territory, and hence more noise and fouling of gardens. This is because calling and scent marking with both urine and faeces are used to lay claim to a territory.

So, at best, fox control normally leads to a very temporary reduction in the number of foxes at considerable expenditure of time and effort.

However, with all of this said, there can still be a time for fox removal.

If you encounter one of the reasons for fox control mentioned in the previous section (ie in the interest of public health and safety) then methods of lethal control can be legally considered.

Calendar of fox activity

MARCH

Around now (March), the vixen will be confined to her earth at one point as this is the peak cubbing season.

The average litter of cubs is usually around five. When cubs are born, they are blind and deaf. Since they are unable to regulate their own body heat, the vixen will not usually leave their side for about 10-11 days.

At birth, the cubs weigh about 100g. As well as not being able to regulate their own heat, they also rely solely on the vixen to stimulate them to urinate and defecate. Since being denned down the vixen relies on her dog fox to bring food - and heaven help him if he's late!

If food hasn’t been brought, the vixen will go to the mouth of the earth and give out several contact calls. Like many males of different species, the dog fox will at this time look like he's got the world on his shoulders and appears very lethargic.

LATE MARCH TO EARLY APRIL

It’s now when householders report losses of pet rabbits and guinea pigs. These will usually be taken as an easy option for the dog fox with so many mouths to feed.

APRIL

April will bring the emergence of the cubs from the earths and dens. It will usually be on a nice warm day in April when the cubs venture for the first-time above ground.

After a great play, they will often slump down in a pile and go to sleep out in the open. Playing is an important role in any young cubs' upbringing and it’s during this play that pecking orders will begin to be established.

The vixen will still be kennelled down with them but now she will hunt for herself. The dog fox will usually lie close to the earth protecting the cubs from any unwanted attention from cats.
In late March and April, telephone calls from concerned householders peak, thinking that foxes are looking to kill cats to feed to the cubs. This is usually not the case but is a public concern.

MAY ONWARDS

To wean the cubs off her milk the vixen will lay away from them during the day, bringing small items of food back for them to move on to solid foods.

This behaviour of the parent fox continues with less and less reliance laid upon them until October when the family group starts to break up and the once previous reliant cub ventures out to fend for itself.

PREVENTION AND TREATMENT

As with all pest management programmes, consider non-lethal control or prevention first. Top priority is prevention.

Make sure you assess and discuss with your customer options such as protected environments for livestock and pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs.

Fencing may also be an option in smaller areas such as domestic garden, but foxes are cunning and the design should take their climbing skill into consideration! The barrier should be at least 2m high with an overhang of about 30cm, as well as the foundation being buried to 30cm for those digging issues!

Ensuring food sources are not available and bins are protected can help reduce the presence of foxes. Speak to your suppliers about fox repellents.

Once you’ve exhausted the prevention/exclusion route, we may then need to consider lethal control.

Legal options for the lethal control of foxes

SHOOTING

This is not usually applicable in urban areas for obvious reasons. When it is considered, it should only be done by an experienced and appropriately skilled individual with proper licences for the firearm.

SNARING

Snaring is a very emotive subject and you must always ensure you are working within legal parameters. The BASC Code of Best Practice on the use of snares for fox control in England should be consulted.

LIVE TRAPPING

Live cage trapping is a skill to behold as foxes have certainly earned the label ‘sly’. Captured foxes should be humanely dispatched by a vet or a skilled marksman. It may be unlawful under animal welfare legislation to release a fox into unfamiliar surroundings.

LEGISLATION REGARDING FOX CONTROL

Always make sure you are familiar with legislation relating to fox control such as:

  • Protection of Animals Act 1911 – foxes may not be poisoned
  • Wildlife and Countryside Act 1982 – prohibits self-locking snares; free-running snares must be checked once a day
  • Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996 – prohibits the cruel treatment of all wild mammals but allows legitimate pest control by humane means
  • Animal Welfare Act 2006 – requires all captive animals to be treated humanely.

Want to know more about a particular pest?

Email us with your PestWatch suggestions:
hello@bpca.org.uk

Source: PPC94

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