Sainsbury’s fox killing is a lesson in the wrong way to manage wildlife

UPDATE: Sainsbury's has released a statement saying that, in any future incidents involving foxes,  the company will only use humane deterrents. This is good news, and we hope more businesses follow their example!

Another week and another story of human-wildlife conflict. But this story was different. It wasn’t in a far flung corner of Africa nor was it a story of villagers fighting off a crop-raiding elephant. This story was in a somewhat closer location with a somewhat more manageable animal – a fox in Sainsbury’s in Crayford, Kent!

Media reports suggsted that a mother fox had been trapped and then shot by a professional exterminator in the store’s loading bay. However, according to later information released by Sainsbury's, two mother foxes were trapped and released, but three male foxes were killed.

A supermarket spokesperson gave this explanation for the killing: ‘A number of foxes have tried to gain access to the store on several occasions. As a food retailer, this presents a health risk to both our colleagues and customers, so we consulted a pest expert.’

Whilst I’m not suggesting that a pack of foxes wandering the aisles of Sainsbury’s would be a good idea, this seems like a false concern. Firstly, there are many easy and humane ways to deter foxes. Making sources of food unavailable or inaccessible is one. Foxes are cunning but they’d do well to outsmart an organisation that turns over £23.5 billion per annum. Secondly, foxes are not classified as vermin by Defra: they are a member of the canidae family (which dogs also belong to) and ironically actually control pests in an area.

Finally, there are numerous companies and organisations that specialise in humane fox control. IFAW has regularly supported an organisation called the Fox Project, which runs a consultancy established to provide a humane alternative to this old fashioned and ineffective ‘pest-control’ approach.

Foxes have a rather masterful way of managing their own population numbers based on available resources. This is why killing one will do nothing at all to resolve any long term issues. Another fox will move into that area within a matter of days because the root cause (access to food) hasn’t been resolved and the population in that area will remain the same - because if you kill 10 foxes, pretty much an extra 10 will be born next time around. That’s the problem with this turn up and kill approach.

What needs to change are attitudes – not just those of businesses like Sainsbury’s, but also among the public. We don’t need to be scared of foxes in our habitats – ultimately, we are just as much in their habitat as they are in ours. I’ve previously written about how the media demonises urban foxes using alarmist headlines such as:

  • Woman tells of horror at being bitten by a fox on two separate nights (2010, Daily Mail)
  • Fox bites off woman’s finger (2011 The Sun)
  • Fox attacked baby boy in own home, police say (2013, BBC News Website)
  • Terror as fox bites toddler, 3, on sledge and tries to drag him away (2013, The Sun)
  • Toddler rushed to hospital in fox attack (2014, The Telegraph).

But each and every time, if you read on, the reality is somewhat different.  A good example is the ‘fox bites off woman’s finger’ story, which relates to the fox biting just the tip of her finger. Many of the articles seem to relate to young cubs exploring and mouthing (that is, using their mouth to sense things just like any young dog does), rather than true biting.

So, will anyone learn from this story? I do hope so. It’s too late for the vixen who was killed and for her cubs, but it isn’t too late for others like her. The incident has caused outrage, and a current petition here has almost 18,000 signatures, calling on Sainsbury’s to adopt a policy of humane pest control. Could this be the incident that triggers change? We hope so.

As animal lovers we have to embrace our wildlife, see joy in it, and change the attitude that if an animal or species is vaguely inconvenient to us then we can just ‘deal with it’. We’re talking about our environment, our wildlife, our land. Don’t be scared of foxes and don’t listen to the media – enjoy their presence and focus on how blessed we are to share our space with such wonderful animals. 

--PM

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