D.I.Wildlife: Why putting out food for wildlife could be doing more damage than good

Sue Massey

Photo courtesy of Sue Massey

Another winter is dawning and already weather forecasters are speculating just how cold it will get. Last year was a relatively mild in comparison to previous years and after a somewhat lacklustre summer, some forecasters are predicting a cold, hard winter ahead.

We are all aware of what this means for us but what about our wildlife? Around this time of year, many people begin to start thinking about how they are going to supplement the natural foods that the warmer months provided, in order to help wildlife keep going through the winter. But should we really be feeding our wildlife during the winter, or at all for that matter? What are the pros and cons of doing so?   A quick browse of the internet brings up lots of articles on different foods for different species, ideas on how to feed and photos of people getting closer to wildlife through feeding, so it would be easy to believe that feeding wildlife is a positive thing for all involved. But there is an argument that supplementary feeding is simply another way for humans to interfere and ultimately, cause further issues.

Wildlife, or at least native wildlife, is designed and built to survive our seasons. The truth of the matter is, if an animal isn’t equipped to find food either before hibernation or during the winter months, then maybe they were never intended to survive. Animals have in-built survival techniques and natural selection would simply pick off those who aren’t strong enough to get through the colder weather. Thicker coats, hibernation, fat stores, hiding food (N.B apparently squirrels forget the location of around 50% of their buried treasures…so maybe not an evolutionary winner there) are all evolutionary tactics developed to help creatures get through colder months.   If we start to offer food for all animals, we could be potentially keeping alive an animal that would normally not make it through. Whilst, on a sentimental level, this is a nice idea, is it really best for nature?  On one side of the argument, a lot of species are struggling in our country and giving them a helping hand is needed. We work on other aspects such as habitat management to safeguard these species, so why not give them a booster? However by feeding and keeping alive – are we upsetting the natural balance? There is a theory that, if we continue to feed up weaker animals and they survive then when mating season comes around, they will also have the chance to breed and could potentially pass on weaknesses to their offspring and the cycle continues.  Animal deaths will occur in even the healthiest of ecosystems – it is simply nature’s way of ensuring the balance, helping the strong, healthy animals continue their breeding line.

On the flip side of this, feeding regularly could potentially lead healthy animals to become reliant on hand outs. This can be detrimental, as if for any reason the hand outs stop such as if the feeder moves house, dies or competition becomes fierce and animals are pushed out, the sudden loss of this food source can lead to an animal potentially starving. You also don’t always know what is going on in your garden. Your garden might naturally attract a species, such as hedgehogs, which you are unaware of. If you then decide to deliberately attract another species, for example badgers or foxes which eat hoglets, you could be doing damage to the original species flourishing in your garden.

Another issue with feeding wildlife is that many people simply don’t know what is best to feed. Whilst this information is easy to find on the internet, there are still myths which are widely believed and some people won’t check the legitimacy of these.  For years, people fed hedgehogs on cow’s milk and bread to birds, but we now know that both of these foods can be problematic for the animals, causing diarrhoea or containing little nutritional value. Despite this information being readily available, I still meet people who think that these are the right foods to put out, believing they are doing the right thing.

Even if you do put out the right foods for the species that already frequent your garden, how you feed can also be important. Communal feeding areas mean lots of different species will flock to one are to eat what is available. As well as attracting the animals the food is intended for, it can also attract “pests”, animals which you didn’t want in your garden or who might prey upon those you did. Communal feeding areas can get very dirty very quickly and it is imperative that they are kept clean. They can also lead to faster spread of disease, either through increased amounts of faeces or simply because animals that wouldn’t normally be in such close proximity are suddenly all thrown together at once, leaving diseases rife to select their next victim.     Feeding wildlife in gardens will also encourage species to venture into urban areas. Not all humans are pleased to see wildlife in “their space”, especially if their behaviour becomes more bold. We have seen hate campaigns against species in the past and with animals like foxes and gulls, this has gone as far as calls for culling. In these cases, it is often the lure of food which causes these visits.   Many people put out food for foxes, either because they want to observe them in the garden or because of the belief that a ‘dog fox’ will help protect their own animals. But foxes are territorial and will fight to preside over different areas. If food is supplemented for foxes, it can cause them to become lazy and this in turn can lead to them losing their territory to other more proactive foxes. The Fox Project, a charity dedicated to caring for foxes in the UK, recommend that no one feed foxes on a regular basis and only consider doing so if the weather is very bad, to prevent ‘undermining natural behaviour’. However, this has brought us back to the question of winter weather – Should we be feeding if we feel it is a bad winter?

To that question, I cannot give you a definite answer. You will have to make your own mind up as to whether it is the right situation to feed or not. However there are lots of alternative ways you can help to support wildlife. Setting up and maintaining suitable habitats in your back garden, planting a range of plants for all seasons and potentially look into natural food sources. If you do feed, ensure you provide the right foods and keep feeding areas clean.  More importantly, do your research – check sites of reputable charities, speak to experts for advice, (select people depending on the species you want to feed) and weight up the positives and negatives before you make your final decision.

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