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Foxes and the Law

The Red Fox (the only fox species found in the UK) has the largest natural distribution of any land mammal except human beings. The UK population is around 375,000, and perhaps one-third are resident in our towns and cities. Data suggests that up to 50 per cent of the UK’s fox population is killed on the roads, and up to 80 per cent of fox cubs die before reaching sexual maturity so never breed.

Foxes have been persecuted for hundreds of years and have little legal protection. Foxes are not protected for conservation purposes so any owner or occupier of a property can decide to kill them (though not in public areas or parks) without requiring a licence.

Addtionally in Scotland the Agriculture (Scotland) Act 1948 permits the killing of foxes for “the prevention of damage to crops, pasture, livestock, trees, hedges, banks, animal or human foodstuffs, or works on land”.

  • While a licence is not required, any killing must still be legal, though, and a fox is protected by, for example, the > Animal Welfare Act 2006 which banned the poisoning of foxes and makes ‘unnecessary suffering’ illegal, and also by hunting laws which makes it illegal in England, Scotland, and Wales to hunt foxes with dogs (hounds).
 

Foxes are not protected by law for conservation purposes and a landowner (or an occupier with the landowner’s permission) may ‘humanely’ kill a fox at any time. [‘Humanely’ is sometimes defined as ‘either killed instantly or rendered insensible until death ensues, without pain, suffering or distress’ – we have strong doubts that landowners or so-called ‘pest controllers’ ever ‘humanely’ kill foxes and use the term as part of quoting legal text only.]

However foxes are not legally classed as ‘pests’ (in the UK the only mammals legally classed as pests are rabbits, mice, rats, and Grey Squirrels) or ‘vermin’ and therefore have limited legal protection.

  • The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 is the primary legislation which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK. While not focussing on foxes specifically it did legislate which traps and snares may be used to trap and kill them (banning self-locking snares). It also made failure to monitor these devices, resulting in increased suffering, a criminal offence, prohibited live baits and decoys, and banned the use of bows and crossbows to kill foxes.
  • The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, was the first Act designed to protect any and all wild mammals. Section 1 of the Act states that if ‘any person mutilates, kicks, beats, nails or otherwise impales, stabs, burns, stones, crushes, drags or asphyxiates any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering, he shall be guilty of an offence’. The Act also makes it a criminal offence to fill in a live fox earth.
  • The Wild Mammals Protection (Scotland) Act (2002) banned hunting wild mammals with dogs for sport in Scotland.
  • The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill 2023 replaced the 2002 Act. It was passed in January 2023 and gained Royal Assent a few months later. The new Act bans so-called ‘trail hunting’ and should effectively end hunting with dogs in Scotland.
  • > The Hunting Act 2004 made it illegal in England and Wales (subject to various loopholes and exemption) to hunt wild mammals including foxes with dogs (hounds).
  • > The Animal Welfare Act 2006 primarily covered domestic animals and required the owners of animals to meet the ‘needs’ of those animals, such as correct feeding, relevant company, a proper environment and protection of the animals from injury and disease. The Act extended these protections to include wild animals and covers situations where for example a trapped fox, is in the control or ‘protection’  of an individual, and must not be subjected to ‘unnecessary suffering’. It also made it illegal to place poison baits to kill foxes.

No. Vermin is a general term applied to animal and bird species regarded as pests, and especially to those associated with diseases, but foxes have never been classified as vermin by Defra or the government.

The term is typically used by agricultural and shooting lobbyists to justfy their eradication of foxes.

While foxes are not protected for conservation purposes in England, it is illegal to use the following to kill foxes (or moles and mink):

  • self-locking snares
  • bows and crossbows
  • explosives other than legal ammunition for a licensed firearm
  • live birds or animals, as bait or live decoys
  • gas or poisons

It is also illegal to:
  • block or destroy fox earths if they are occupied
  • use dogs to hunt foxes

No, it is not legal across the UK except in Northern Ireland where fox hunting with hounds is still legal.

In Scotland the Wild Mammals Protection (Scotland) Act (2002) banned hunting wild mammals with dogs for sport. The Act will be replaced by the much stronger Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill 2023 when that comes into force in the summer or autumn of 2023: the new Act bans so-called ‘trail hunting’ and should effectively end hunting with dogs in Scotland.

In England and Wales the Hunting Act 2004 banned the hunting of mammals with dogs but is riddled with loopholes and exemptions that has allowed fox hunting to continue pretty much as before the ban was passed. Nonetheless the law is clear: “The Act prohibits all hunting of wild mammals with dogs, except where it is carried out in accordance with the conditions of an exemption, and all hare coursing events.

Protect the Wild is campaigning for a new law which will remove those exemptions and give better protecttion to wild foxes > A Proper Ban on Hunting.

It is legal to snare foxes in England and Northen Ireland. In June 2023 the Welsh Senned voted overwhelmingly to ban snare use (making it the first country in the UK to fully ban snares) and much to the annoyance of the shooting industry in mid-November 2023 Scotland’s Environment Minister confirmed that a FULL BAN on the use of snares would be included in the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill.

Sadly, though, the shooting industry in England is still using huge numbers of snares to kill foxes to ‘protect’ the birds it wants to sell to shooters ( > Snares and the shooting industry).

The use of snares is (supposed to be) strictly controlled, and a snare operator by law must:

  • only use free-running snares, which relax when the animal is captured,
  • check snares at least once a day,
  • ‘humanely’ kill any fox they catch while in a trap or snare,
  • release all other animals unharmed – except Grey Squirrels and American Mink, which because of The Invasive Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 which bans the release of some non-native species into the wild must be ‘humanely’ killed instead,
  • In Scotland snares used for foxes must have an effective safety stop 23cm from the running end.

It is not legal to:

  • place traps or snares near a badger sett or where badgers are present
  • place snares in urban areas or public spaces

 

Additionally, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Scotland) 2011 has a number of provisions that affect the use of snares in Scotland:

  1. Since 1 April 2013, anyone who sets a snare in position must have an identification number
  2. Anyone who sets in position or otherwise uses a snare must ensure:
    a) that a tag is fitted on the snare that can’t be easily removed
    b) that there is displayed on the tag (which will remain readable) the identification number of the person who set the snare
    c) where the snare is intended to catch the following types of animal-
    i) brown hares or rabbits or
    ii) foxes.

 

For more information > Snares and the Law

No. It is illegal to use any poisons of any sort (including gassing compounds) on foxes. That means a crime is being committed if someone uses poisons to kill or try to kill foxes.

Much as we would like to see it illegal to ever dig a fox out of an earth or den, there are exceptions in law (which as so often largely favour the shooting industry):

  • If it’s in relation to ‘game’ keeping i.e. to ‘protect’ birds long enough so that they can later be killed by shooters.
  • No more than one dog is used to ‘flush out’ the fox.
  • The fox is shot dead immediately on emergence.
  • The fox digger has written permission proving the land is privately owned by him/her, or has permission from the landowner to be there.
  • The fox digger isn’t interfering with an active badger sett. Active badger setts are protected by the ‘Protection of Badgers Act 1992’.

As landowners Councils may kill foxes on their land (using legal methods and ensuring no unnecessary suffering is caused) but as foxes are classed as wild animals, not pests, they have no legal responsibility, statutory powers or legal rights to kill foxes on their own land or on anyone else’s.

Most Councils also recognise that killing foxes is ineffective in reducing fox populations. This advice from Bristol Council (a city with a large population of urban foxes) is typical:

There is no fox control in Bristol because controlling urban foxes is difficult, expensive and never successful. Urban foxes are difficult to control because shooting and snaring is not acceptable in urban areas and live trapping is very ineffective. Also when urban foxes are killed or removed then urban foxes just increase their breeding numbers.”

Foxes are not properly protected by law, so the owner or occupier of a property can kill a fox at any time. Anyone using a firearm must have the landowner’s permission and the relevant firearms licence ( > Firearms and the Law). The government discourages the use of firearms in urban areas where people live for obvious reasons.

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, though, an individual causing unnecessary suffering to the fox could be jailed and get an unlimited fine.

If a landowner decides to employ someone to shoot a fox on their property they will be responsible for the costs of killing and disposing of the body (which can be considerable).

It is not legal to:

  • use gassing or poisoning
  • block or destroy fox earths if they are occupied
  • use dogs to hunt foxes

 

Yes it is legal to use deterrents to keep foxes away, but only repellents and deterrents that have been approved for use against foxes.

It is also possible to deter and repel foxes using natural and/or physical methods. Natural repellents (often based on a mixture of chili powder and garlic), motion sensor devices (which can trigger bright lights or water spraying),  and physical barriers such as fences and netting, can make a garden less attractive to foxes. 

No. In many cases foxes go unnoticed or are welcome wildlife in gardens and they cause no damage. They avoid household cats and dogs as they don’t consider them prey and most mammals will avoid getting into fights anyway because of the risk of injury.

In some gardens foxes – just like companion dogs or cats – might trample plants, eat ripening fruits, dig holes or leave droppings and food debris, and a fox may dig up borders or rockeries where bonemeal, dried blood or chicken pellet manure has been used as fertiliser.

All animals will try to defend themselves if they are cornered or are being attacked, but even with the rapid rise in the number of urban foxes there have been very, very few recorded attacks on people. If a fox does get into a house by accident, they will look for an exit as soon as they realize that there are people inside.

Even in cases where a human may be close to its den, a fox will try to guide the person away by running off rather than attacking.

To put things into perspective, as of March 2023 across England and Wales there have been eighteen deadly dog attacks since January 2020 and NHS figures released last year revealed the number of dog-bite victims having surgery hit a 15-year high. An expert points to owners – not the animal – being to blame, saying “We had the wrong dogs, being bred by the wrong people, going to the wrong homes.”

In a word, anything! Foxes are omnivores and are incredibly versatile and adaptable. Depending on availability and the time of year foxes will eat a wide range of foods, including animals and plant matter.

As town dwellers will know, foxes will often adapt to feed on whatever they can find in the area they’re in, including raiding rubbish bags or coming into gardens to eat cat or dog food. In more rural settings as well as taking rats and rabbits, foxes will eat seasonal berries, fruits, seeds, nuts, acorns, and tubers. If they find themselves close to water,  foxes will eat frogs and small fish, and have been recorded eating crabs and dead fish along shorelines.

Of course foxes will also readily take roadkill – including scavenging on the bodies of the many non-native pheasants released by the shooting industry and killed on our roads every year.

Wildlife crime is defined as any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild flora and fauna, including species traded in the UK.

Note that wildlife crime does NOT include:

  • Incidents involving domestic or companion animals such as dogs (other than dogs being used to hunt mammals), cats, rabbits, domesticated birds, etc.
  • Wild animals that have been involved (killed or injured etc) in road traffic accidents.

Road accidents with wild animals do not need to be reported to the police, but note that domestic animals (as well as goats, horses, cattle, asses, mules, sheep and pigs) come within the remit of the Road Traffic Act.
If you have a road accident involving these animals you are required by law to report it to the police. If the wild animal is so badly injured in a road accident that there is no chance of recovery or the animal can not be returned to the wild then he or she may be euthanised, providing there is no appropriate long-term captive or semi-captive accommodation or when treatment would involve undue suffering or distress.

If we come across a wildlife crime scene or a dead bird/object that may be related to a wildlife crime every piece of information is – or might be – important, but it needs to be recorded properly and accurately for the authorities to have a chance of prosecuting an offender.

  • Before we do anything else it is very important that we do NOT approach anyone we suspect of committing a crime – they may be violent and/or aggressive. This is especially true of badger baiters and hare coursers who are typically extremely violent. This must be a first priority!
 
What do we need to record?
  • What we can see happening – what sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved, could we or the public be in danger?
  • The exact location. Most smartphones have map apps or download the free What3Words app. If in open countryside look for obvious landmarks or fence lines, a tall or isolated tree, a wind turbine, any streams or brooks etc. Think about what would you need to re find a remote location.
  • It is important to record if at all possible whether we are on or near public land as this will determine the type of police response.
  • Never put ourselves in danger, but can we see who is involved and what they look like (e.g. number of people, their gender(s), age(s), the clothing worn, tools being carried)? Can we hear them – if so what are they saying, are they using any names etc?
  • If any dogs are involved how many are there, what colour are they, do we know what breed they are (even information like ‘terriers’ or ‘lurcher-types’ can be very useful).
  • The make, colour and registration number of any vehicle (we can take photos of a car if we think it is being used or might be used to commit a crime). Does it have any obvious dents, branding or markings, spotlights, bullbars etc.

 

DO and DO NOT

  • Do NOT disturb the scene by walking around unnecessarily – small pieces of evidence (cigarette ends, footprints, the marks left by a spade etc) may be lost or trampled into the mud or grass.
  • If photographing an object do try to use eg a coin or a notebook/field guide for scale – providing it won’t disturb the crime scene.
  • If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. DO NOT mark a site with eg a white plastic bag though. Being able to see a marker from a distance might sound like a good idea, but it will also alert an offender that someone has been at the site: they may go back and remove the evidence
  • Do NOT move any items at the scene – the exception being if they are likely to disappear before the police arrive when we can collect them as evidence.
  • Do NOT touch any dead birds or animals with bare hands. They may be poisoned baits or victims of poisoning. Many poisons (eg Carbofuran) are extremely dangerous in even very small amounts and can be absorbed through the skin.
  • Do NOT do anything illegal ourselves – that might mean our evidence is not admissible.
 If we see a wildlife crime taking place (or someone is at risk of getting injured or is being threatened) call 999 immediately.
They will want to know what we can see happening:
  • What sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved
  • Could we or the public be in danger
  • Do we have photos or video footage which may be used as evidence
  • Tell whoever you REPORT the crime to exactly what you have RECORDED as described in the section above.
 
To report a historic crime – that is, a crime that is no longer taking place – use 101 or a local organisation instead.
  • If calling the police ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer and make sure to get an Incident Report number.
  • Please always follow any advice given and – if they are not available – insist that a Wildlife Crime Officer is made aware of your report.
  •  Our options are wider if the event is over, and it may be preferable to talk first to a charity or NGO to get advice. Crimestoppers (an independent charity) can be contacted in complete confidence on 0800 555 111
  • When thinking about reporting a crime it’s worth noting that only the police have statutory powers to make an arrest. RSPCA and RSPB investigation officers work with the police for successful prosecutions.
 
Reporting a wildlife crime (or even a suspected wildlife crime) is important for two reasons.
  • If the event is still happening it may enable the authorities to catch the criminals ‘in the act’ (which means a higher chance of prosecution),
  • and if the event is over a report can still help to build up a more accurate picture of what might be happening in a specific location or across the country as a whole.
Our help is always welcomed
  • Whoever we decide to contact we have been assured that our help is welcomed and that if we’re in any doubt that what we’re seeing is a crime we should report it anyway. Remember, if what we see ‘feels’ wrong, it probably is!
  • Even if we’re not sure about what we’re seeing, we can take a photograph and email it to the police or an investigations officer – they are trained to quickly recognise for example when a snare is illegally placed, whether a trap is being used illegally, or whether a crime is being committed or not.
  • We may help stop or solve future crimes by helping build up a pattern of behaviour in an area.

 For more information on this much maligned animal go to our Fox species account. Find out too what we’re doing to End Hunting in the UK

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.