Din­ner ta­ble drama

Ur­ban foxes are thriv­ing, but is their place at wildlife feed­ing sta­tions un­der threat? Dawn Scott, a Spring­watch reg­u­lar, shares the re­sults of her re­search.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - DAWN SCOTT lec­tures in ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Brighton, and stud­ies hu­man–wildlife in­ter­ac­tions. She ap­pears on Spring­watch; see a pre­view on p90.

Cover story Who is top dog at the gar­den food bowl?

When we had heavy snow in March I re­mem­ber ly­ing in bed and think­ing I should put some food out for the foxes. The vixens were likely to be preg­nant and close to giv­ing birth, and there wouldn’t be much nat­u­ral food about in the sub-zero tem­per­a­tures. So I grabbed a hand­ful of dog bis­cuits and scat­tered them across the frozen gar­den be­fore quickly rush­ing back to my warm du­vet. But when­ever I pro­vide food for foxes or other wildlife, I am con­flicted over whether it’s the best thing to do.

Per­haps like many of you, my ap­proach has been to gar­den in such a way that my patch sup­ports an abun­dance of nat­u­ral foods, rather than to put out sup­ple­men­tary food. Yet we are in­creas­ingly en­cour­aged by con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions to do just that, and the va­ri­ety of com­mer­cial prod­ucts avail­able has grown dra­mat­i­cally. From bird seed and fat balls to hedge­hog food, this is a big busi­ness.

As a sci­en­tist, I want to see the ev­i­dence be­hind the mes­sage “feed­ing wildlife helps”. If feed­ing is go­ing to ben­e­fit my lo­cal foxes and var­i­ous other species, then I want to know what, when and how much to feed in or­der to have the great­est ben­e­fit. At the mo­ment, that in­for­ma­tion is largely lack­ing.

Foxes might well just rely on ex­tra food dur­ing un­favourable weather, from freez­ing spells to spring and sum­mer droughts, but it could also lead to longer-term changes in their for­ag­ing be­hav­iour, in­clud­ing where they go to find food and what they choose to eat. The food we pro­vide tends to be rel­a­tively high-en­ergy and ac­ces­si­ble com­pared to the ef­fort in­volved in hunt­ing and scav­eng­ing, so for foxes sup­ple­men­tary food might make sense as an ‘easy op­tion’.

ON TIME FOR TEA

In a study I have been con­duct­ing with a col­league, Bry­ony Tol­hurst, we have in­deed seen ur­ban foxes mod­ify their for­ag­ing trips to ar­rive in a gar­den pre­cisely when food is be­ing put out. The ac­cu­racy of their tim­ing can be re­mark­able; if their hu­man is a few min­utes late, they will sit and wait pa­tiently for their nightly din­ner. When ra­dio­track­ing ur­ban foxes, we have found that the gar­dens they visit most are the ones sup­ply­ing most food, in­di­cat­ing where they go at night de­pends on where they are be­ing fed.

We have wit­nessed sim­i­lar be­hav­iour in ur­ban badgers. One badger clan we fol­lowed started each night by visit­ing a ‘friendly’ gar­den to fill up on a whole loaf’s worth of jam sand­wiches, be­fore head­ing off to for­age else­where. Ur­ban hedge­hogs also seem to hang around where they are fed. We ra­dio-tracked a group of hedge­hogs and found that the ac­tiv­ity of some in­di­vid­u­als was clearly cen­tred on one par­tic­u­lar back gar­den that sup­plied a large bowl of hedge­hog food.

All of our stud­ies to date have pointed to­wards the con­clu­sion that sup­ple­men­tary food is af­fect­ing ur­ban mam­mal be­hav­iour. But is this good news for foxes and other species? Or could there be any down­sides?

One po­ten­tial prob­lem is im­pacts on wildlife health. Sup­ple­men­tary food, such as raw meat, eggs, fruit, nuts and sun­flower and ny­jer seeds, can be healthy and valu­able. Some­times, though, it is less nu­tri­tious than the nat­u­ral food it re­places, so might have an ef­fect on body fat, teeth con­di­tion and im­mune re­sponses. It also en­cour­ages an­i­mals to gather in the same place, in­creas­ing the risk of dis­ease trans­mis­sion. For ex­am­ple, the dis­ease tri­chomono­sis seems to have contributed to the re­cent steep de­cline of green­finch pop­u­la­tions in Bri­tain (it was first no­ticed in the species in 2006), and trans­mis­sion at bird feed­ers could be a key fac­tor.

STAY­ING PUT

As we have seen with our ra­dio-tracked foxes, clumped food may also dis­suade wildlife from mov­ing very far from the ‘hon­ey­pot’. This in turn could af­fect so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and dis­per­sal, po­ten­tially lead­ing to higher lo­cal pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties and less move­ment dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son. Higher lev­els of in­breed­ing have been found in water­fowl sup­plied with ex­tra food; might the same also be true of ur­ban foxes? We don’t yet know.

Any­one lucky enough to have mul­ti­ple foxes visit­ing their gar­den may have wit­nessed a range of ag­gres­sive, threat­en­ing or sub­mis­sive be­hav­iour as they feed. Com­pe­ti­tion over food also leads to in­ter­ac­tions be­tween foxes and other species – es­pe­cially badgers and hedge­hogs. This trio have par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing re­la­tion­ships. For a start, they eat sim­i­lar foods, form­ing what is called an ‘in­ter­spe­cific guild’. But more than that, foxes and badgers are both known on oc­ca­sion to eat their spiky com­peti­tors.

We have recorded plenty of ex­am­ples of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween foxes and badgers at feed­ing sites. In one case, we saw a fox care­fully ap­proach a feed­ing badger, nip its back­side and then quickly run off, seem­ingly frus­trated with Brock at not be­ing able to ac­cess the food. But we have also seen peace­ful co-ex­is­tence. Foxes and hedge­hogs may feed from the same bowl, ap­par­ently un­fazed by each other’s pres­ence.

Our cam­era-trap stud­ies in gar­dens have also demon­strated that of­fer­ing ex­tra food does not just at­tract wildlife. In one gar­den, we recorded around 20 do­mes­tic cats visit­ing a feed­ing bowl dur­ing a sin­gle night. Clearly, feed­ing can bring pets and wildlife to­gether in a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, so your mog­gie is part of the equa­tion too.

IF THEIR HU­MAN IS A FEW MIN­UTES LATE, THE FOXES WILL SIT AND WAIT PA­TIENTLY FOR THEIR NIGHTLY DIN­NER.

What then tips the bal­ance? When do com­peti­tors be­come preda­tor and prey? Is it when the food bowl runs out? Are there sea­sonal vari­a­tions? Th­ese are ques­tions we are still busy an­swer­ing. But how much food peo­ple sup­ply, where they put it and how fre­quently could well be what af­fects the level of com­pe­ti­tion, since gar­dens with more abun­dant and re­li­able food are likely to at­tract more din­ers.

‘SPRINGTAILS’ SIGHT­INGS

So who are the win­ners and losers? To find out if foxes might be Bri­tain’s top dogs, we needed to ask the pub­lic for help. Our idea was to crowd­source cam­er­a­trap footage from any­one who had recorded an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tions in their gar­den, to­gether with in­for­ma­tion about how they pro­vide food (if they do). Be­hind the scenes, we trained a group of univer­sity stu­dents and IT sup­port staff work­ing 24/7 to down­load and an­a­lyse the be­hav­iour in the videos sent in. The ‘Springtails’ project launched on Spring­watch on BBC Two in 2017.

First, we as­sessed the types of in­ter­ac­tions – whether they were ag­o­nis­tic (com­pet­i­tive) or neu­tral, and whether there was any other be­hav­iour, such as in­ves­ti­ga­tion or play. We also looked at what are known as dyadic en­coun­ters, where two in­di­vid­u­als con­test a re­source; in th­ese cases, we recorded who came out the ‘win­ner’ and ended up with own­er­ship of the din­ner plate.

In all, 73 per cent of the Springtails con­trib­u­tors fed wildlife in their gar­den ev­ery day, of­fer­ing more than two hand­fuls of food. Of the peo­ple who pro­vided food, 76 per cent said they did so in the same place in the gar­den, while 16 per cent said they scat­tered it. This suggests that

sup­ple­men­tary food is both abun­dant and re­li­able. How­ever, we were to find out that it is not al­ways the health­i­est.

Most Springtails re­spon­dents fed their foxes and other ur­ban mam­mals pet food, peanuts, meal­worms or com­mer­cial hedge­hog food. But nearly 10 per cent said that they pro­vided car­bo­hy­drate-based food, such as bread, pizza, pasta, cakes, bis­cuits, crisps and break­fast ce­real. Th­ese items are not very nu­tri­tious and are high in sug­ars and fats, which could re­sult in an­i­mals fill­ing up on non-nat­u­ral food; the im­pact on wildlife health re­mains un­known.

FOX FRIGHT

Badgers, not foxes, ap­peared to be top dog in gar­dens. They won the com­pe­ti­tion for food with foxes and cats. In fact, foxes fared the worst, los­ing to both badgers and cats, with the lat­ter fre­quently scar­ing them off and win­ning nearly twice as many stand-offs. The size dif­fer­ence is not as great as you might imag­ine: a big, well-fed pet cat weighs much the same as a small fox.

Foxes got on bet­ter with hedge­hogs, with less vis­i­ble com­pe­ti­tion. Nonethe­less, 41 per cent of all fox-hedge­hog en­coun­ters were still ag­o­nis­tic, with foxes win­ning half of them. We ob­served no ev­i­dence of foxes killing hedge­hogs. But in a small num­ber of badger–hedge­hog in­ter­ac­tions, we did see the com­pe­ti­tion switch to pre­da­tion. This re­in­forced the the­ory that at­tract­ing hedge­hogs and badgers to­gether with food might some­times lead to un­wanted pre­da­tion. Cats were sub­mis­sive in en­coun­ters with hedge­hogs, and tended to avoid or run away from them.

We noted lit­tle ag­gres­sion be­tween badgers, pos­si­bly be­cause they al­ready have an es­tab­lished so­cial hi­er­ar­chy, but saw quite a lot of ag­gres­sion ress ion be­tween foxes, rep­re­sent­ing 35 per centc of all fox–fox in­ter­ac­tions. Most sur­pris­ing was the level of ag­gres­sion be­tween hedge­hogs, ac­count­ing for 52 per cent of their in­nter­ac­tions. One be­hav­iour I called the ‘barge annd roll’ in­volved a hedge­hog run­ning at anoother one with its head down, mak­ing its ri­vall roll into a ball. The ag­gres­sor would then rolll the other hedge­hog away, some­times ac­cross a gar­den and even in one case down a flight of gar­den stairs! Ev­i­dently, hedge­hogs do not like shar­ing their food bowl.

The Springtails study suggests thhat sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing in gar­dens does in­deed bring more an­i­mals to­gether in closer prox­im­ity, leadinng to com­pe­ti­tion. Also strik­ing is the fact that when food was scat­tered oor left in mul­ti­ple places, there was leess ag­gres­sion, as an­i­mals could eat inn

Below: a vixen feeds from a bird ta­ble in a Bris­tol gar­den. In Bri­tain, foxes first be­came es­tab­lished in cities dur­ing the 1940s. FOXES FARED THE WORST, LOS­ING TO BOTH BADGERS AND CATS, WITH THE LAT­TER FRE­QUENTLY SCAR­ING THEM OFF.

their ‘own space’. Clearly, we need more re­search into the ef­fects of feed­ing wildlife, and I’d also ar­gue that the pub­lic need more prac­ti­cal ad­vice on how to go about it.

Gar­dens make up one of the UK’s largest spa­ces for wildlife – it’s an oft-re­peated fact that they cover a big­ger area than all of the na­tional na­ture re­serves put to­gether. But I won­der if, in the long term, cre­at­ing di­verse habi­tats in our gar­dens that sup­ply plenty of nat­u­ral food and refuges may be prefer­able to sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing. On the other hand, there are cer­tain cases – take Bri­tain’s goldfinches and over­win­ter­ing black­caps, for ex­am­ple – where there ap­pear to be strong links be­tween in­creas­ing num­bers and gar­den feed­ing.

We also mustn’t for­get that feed­ing foxes and other wildlife gives enor­mous plea­sure to mil­lions of us. And I hope that the few dog bis­cuits I left out for one of my neigh­bour­hood’s preg­nant vixens on that bit­terly cold night might have helped her just a lit­tle bit. If I see any lo­cal cubs this spring, I’ll won­der what dif­fer­ence I might have made.

WE NEED MORE RE­SEARCH INTO THE EF­FECTS OF FEED­ING WILDLIFE… AND THE PUB­LIC NEEDS MORE PRAC­TI­CAL AD­VICE.

Above: food in gar­dens cre­ates com­pe­ti­tion be­tween badgers and foxes ( above); hedge­hogs and foxes ( below) and do­mes­tic cats and foxes ( right). The mog­gie has the up­per hand in this Lon­don grave­yard.

Fleet the fox was named by Univer­sity of Brighton re­searchers and fi­fit­ted with a ra­dio-col­lar. He walked 315km into the Sus­sex coun­try­side to find space to form his own ter­ri­tory.

Ur­ban foxes adapt their for­ag­ing trips to ar­rive in gar­dens when food is be­ing put out by house­hold­ers. They will also scav­enge from bird ta­bles, dust­bins and com­post heaps.

A fox steps into a green­house. In an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment its ter­ri­tory can be as small as 0.2km2. Below: cam­era-traps pro­vide valu­able data on foxes.

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