Some local residents have voiced concern about foxes in Dulwich Park and their own gardens. Here are some tips for avoiding problematic inter-species encounters. Non-lethal deterrent strategies are the answer, incidentally, not culling - see the statement from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) below for reasons why.
Firstly, take a good look around your local “territory” (garden, patio, back yard) and see what lies within that could attract a fox to visit. Bear in mind that any creatures living “wild” will be looking for the same things - water, nutrition and shelter from the elements and from enemies. Foxes aren’t, by nature, nocturnal, as their physiology shows, but tend to forage by night as a result of centuries of human persecution.
Do you have a pond or other fresh water that an animal would want to drink from (especially during this last summer’s bouts of extreme heat)? You may wish to make access a little harder if you don’t want foxes as regular callers, e.g. put in a prickly vegetation surround, wobbly stones, etc., in much the same way you might protect pond fish from cat or heron predators. But do be sure to still provide access to fresh drinking water for the birds (and any hedgehogs you may be lucky enough to have in your area), by positioning water sources accordingly (e.g. suspended bird bath, small water dish under a low plank across two bricks).
Do you offer a fox a meal? You may not be deliberately feeding a local fox group, but inadvertently triggering their hunting and scavenging instincts by having in your garden an inadequately protected outdoor-living prey species, such as a pet rabbit or guinea pig (i.e. not housed in suitably tough galvanised metal caging or run that’s too heavy for a fox to lift. It would need to be underwired below the soil to a distance far enough for the pet not to be dug out). Perhaps there is uneaten cat food around, or spilt bird food. Any wild rodents using your garden or living in and around your premises will also be attracting foxes hunting for food. (The mice will have been raiding the spilt bird food first and the rats will have been chasing the mice...it’s amazing what goes on in the garden at night, when you’re not around ). If you are a keen gardener, be aware that certain fertilizers (blood, bonemeal, manure) will all attract foxes. They will dig into the treated soil because their ultra-keen sense of smell will be telling them - falsely - that tasty carrion lies buried below. All members of the dog family routinely “cache” (hide/bury) surplus prey as a kind of wildlife larder.
Has your garden got the ideal spot to shelter a breeding earth? Foxes will lie up under any vegetation, or sunbathe on flat roofs, and rotate their open-air sleeping quarters, but pregnant vixens usually seek out a dry, secluded spot (e.g. under a garden shed) which offers a ready-made roof and protection from predators (such as an unneutered tom cat or inquisitive family pet dog) who might kill and eat her cubs. So block off such zones if you don’t want fox cubs in your garden.
Damage and soiling problems in gardens are usually the result of young foxes practise digging (which uproots your treasured plants in the process), “playing” to hone their hunting and other survival skills in adulthood, or of territorial marking with faeces or urine which has been impregnated with oily pheronome-rich excretions to send signals to other mammals. Faeces are often placed deliberately to act as visual, as well as scented, markers. Many deterrence methods exploit this - for instance, using dog (male or female) urine can be highly effective in telling a visiting fox that a bigger, fiercer animal has already tagged the territory as their own, so the intruder had better beat it. Human urine is also a good deterrent - but for hormonal reasons, it must be male.
Other methods rely on the scarecrow effect - lights, noises, vibrations, jets of water, etc. But any unexpected object, even one as simple as a large plastic container in the middle of the garden, will put a fox off - until the animal has got used to its presence and no longer views it with suspicion. Then you can find an alternative objet trouve and place it in a new site.
Foxes, like other wild British mammals, are protected by law against cruel treatment and also against the use of poisons and illegal traps or snares. Interestingly, polls have shown that 80 per cent of Londoners like seeing foxes in their neighbourhood. In a recent statement, Defra have said: ”Recent events have heightened public concern about urban foxes, however, attacks of this kind are extremely rare and we have no records of any other such attacks in recent years. In light of this, we have no plans to carry out a government-led cull of foxes...
“Previous attempts to kill urban foxes to achieve a sustained population reduction have not been successful in the long-term because of the mobility of foxes and their ability to produce offspring in large numbers; territories made vacant by culling resident foxes are rapidly colonised by new individuals. The most effective strategies to resolve fox problems have primarily relied on non-lethal methods, focusing on preventative and deterrent strategies. The availability of food is likely to be a key factor in limiting urban fox populations.”
Dulwich Park Friends and Southwark Council are, incidentally, currently taking measures to tackle the problem of scattered litter in the park, which has triggered calls for better fox control. Solutions focus on providing bigger, fitter-for-purpose litter containers at weekends. However, Journal readers are invited to suggest humane control measures to tackle the behaviour of the two-legged park-users who leave uneaten food waste, used nappies and other debris in the environment. Perhaps such items are really ancient territorial scent-mark signals we have forgotten how to read?
Chair, Wildlife Committee