‘Enjoy the foxes - but don’t forget they are wild animals’

Fox waiting at the window for its treat. Don Rudston
Fox waiting at the window for its treat. Don Rudston

They can often be spotted scurrying in gardens and woodland and even crossing the road, especially at night.

Numbers of foxes in the city are thought to be increasing, and many householders are happy to encourage them.

But should people feed them?

A conference of public health and conservation organisations warned against it because it can disrupt the ‘natural order of things’ and artificially sustain populations.

“Foxes are a natural part of our urban environment but their numbers do need to be controlled to avoid them causing a nuisance or a potential public health problem,” said principal policy officer Bob Mayho. “Digging, defecating and bin raiding habits of foxes can cause considerable nuisance and disturbance.”

Sheffield environmental expert Prof Ian Rotherham believes the local urban fox population is growing, but is not convinced that the relationship between humans and urban foxes is one to be concerned about.

“They have become a fairly common sight in Sheffield,” he said. “I get lots and lots of people emailing and writing to me about foxes, and I have not really come across any significant issue or problem, not like with badgers which can dig up back lawns and make a mess.

“But most people think it is fantastic to have a fox or badger in their garden.”

Prof Rotherham, who lives in Norton, says one woman in the area feeds foxes in woodland by leaving fresh pork on a bone china plate.

Not everybody may be so accommodating.

“If you are feeding foxes, a neighbour may not be happy about the noise or smell. People need to be considerate.”

And you have to remember that they are predators, not pets. “I don’t think there is a problem if you respect the fact that they are wild.

“People have fed foxes by hand in some cases, but foxes may get used to it and other people may not realise the situation. You might get a child who gets nipped.

“It’s a large animal, and they are killers. You have to respect them. You don’t want a fox that is so tame it runs up to a child, but the chances for people in urban areas to have this contact with nature is wonderful.”

There has been no major study of urban foxes in Sheffield since 1984.

However, Prof Rotherham, reader in environmental change in the Department of the Natural and Built Environments at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “I have certainly not seen any evidence of a decline in numbers, or of any serious health problem, but it is very hard to tell. I think the numbers are still going up. If you drive around Sheffield, you’ll see foxes, and badgers, all over the place.”

Increasingly, urban spaces are being ‘greened’, which provides potential habitat, and there is plenty of waste for foxes to scavenge on.

“There are a lot of people who get a huge amount of pleasure out of them. People love to feed the birds and, increasingly the foxes.”