Feeding wildlife can be a rewarding way to support struggling species in times of food scarcity or extreme weather, and a means of encouraging local wildlife to visit your garden, where you can enjoy watching or recording their behaviour. However, feeding mammals in the wrong way can cause problems for those animals, other wildlife, or people. The following guidance is intended to prevent well-meaning efforts to support local mammals from inadvertently doing harm.
The information below is not provided for the purposes of informing or encouraging the baiting, hunting, poisoning or trapping of mammals.
There is limited scientific evidence in this area, and so the advice given below is based on the small amount of available information and expert opinion, and so may be subject to change. If you are aware of any relevant evidence that should be taken into consideration in a future draft of this advice, then please let us know at email@example.com.
We suggest that supplementary feeding should not form a substantial part of an individual animal’s diet, (significantly reducing the need for them to find food naturally themselves), to avoid them becoming dependent.
If you want to feed wildlife visiting your garden, offer small amounts regularly. It is important to reduce the amount being offered if it is not all taken, and to take care not to over-feed wildlife as this could impact their health or cause changes in behaviour, such as reducing territory size and daily ranging distances. Such disruption of an animal’s natural behaviour may not be in its long-term interest. Also, if a resident is away, moves house, or stops leaving food for any reason, the animals may not have alternative sources, potentially causing increased aggression or creating conflict with other residents.
It’s also possible that over-feeding could lead to an increase in the number of individuals in a social group for some species, as has been observed for foxes and badgers. This could change local population dynamics, potentially increasing risks of disease spread, and increasing instances of human-wildlife conflict or perceived nuisance behaviour.
Whether you feed mammals in your garden or not, it’s helpful to provide a source of drinking water. This might mean providing a shallow dish of clean, fresh water, particularly during periods of prolonged hot, dry weather. Putting stones in the bottom can help smaller animals, such as invertebrates, get out. Better still, digging a garden pond will not only act as a source of water for mammals but will also attract a range of other wildlife. Don’t forget to include a route of escape for any smaller animals should they fall in.
It is important to always remember that wild animals should be treated as such. They should NEVER be encouraged to feed from the hand or to enter the house. As well as the risk of disease transmission in either direction, animals that become over-familiar with humans can end up coming into conflict with other residents who may be less comfortable in their presence, potentially leading to calls to a pest controller.
It should be noted that there are many ways to attract wild mammals without the need for direct provision of food. For example, planting trees and hedges, leaving areas of long grass and wildflowers, leaf litter and wood piles can increase numbers of invertebrates, seeds and berries that will in turn attract a variety of animal species if your garden is accessible to them. Such approaches are more sustainable than direct provision of food, and have much wider biodiversity benefits, so should always be the preferred option for attracting wildlife. We do not recommend feeding wildlife if they need to cross a major road to access the garden.
If you are going to feed wild mammals then it’s important to make sure that you provide small quantities of the right kind of food.
Dishes and feeders should be regularly cleaned to avoid the spread of diseases between animals, or from humans to animals. See guidance on feeding station hygiene below.
We recommend that you pick up faeces (wearing appropriate PPE) on a regular basis if they start to accumulate to reduce risks of disease spread. Dispose of the faeces as you would pet waste – by bagging and putting in the general waste bin or a dedicated dog waste bin.
It is also important to keep in mind which species are using your garden and how they might interact with one another. For example, feeding wildlife may also lead to increased predation. While this is a natural process, we do suggest that the location and type of feeding station is carefully considered so as to reduce the chances of competition and predation amongst the visitors. For example, if you have hedgehogs in your garden, or that of a neighbour, you should, where possible, avoid attracting badgers and foxes.
Uptake of food should be monitored to make sure that rats or cats are not taking advantage of the food supply. A trail camera or CCTV array can be used. A build-up of rats may encourage the use of poisons or snap-traps in adjacent gardens, which could impact other wildlife. To minimise such problems try leaving out smaller amounts of food, varying the time food is left out, or suspending supplementary feeding for a while.
Feeding station hygiene
Encouraging wildlife to visit a common feeding station, whether it attracts individuals of the same species or individuals from different species, can create a risk of disease transmission. This is especially known to be an issue of concern with squirrels, but is an important consideration for all mammals. In order to avoid the risk of spreading disease, clean feeding stations regularly. For most feeding stations once a month would be sufficient, however if multiple species are visiting – especially squirrels – fortnightly would be advised.
- Empty any uneaten food
- Scrub feeder with a mild solution of unperfumed washing-up liquid or detergent and water to remove greasy residues, then rinse with clean water.
- The feeder should be liberally sprayed with, or dipped in, fresh 5-10% solution of Sodium hypochlorite (eg unperfumed domestic bleach) or similar approved veterinary disinfectant for 10-15 minutes. Use gloves when using corrosive substances such as bleach.
- Rinse with clean water and allow to dry well before use.
You may find that there are reduced visits to freshly cleaned feeding stations, and may wish to have two separate stations so as to be able to alternate.
Species-Specific Feeding Guidance
Species-specific wildlife food can now be bought for a broad range of mammals, but some may not be suitable for other species , so please consider carefully which foods you put out, and whether they can be placed in such a way to reduce risks to ‘non-target’ species (e.g., a raised feeding platform can prevent access by hedgehogs).
We do not encourage regular feeding of badgers in suburban or urban gardens. This is because they can rapidly become a problem, particularly if large numbers begin to visit adjacent gardens where they may not be welcome. They can cause significant damage and are difficult to deter once patterns of behaviour have become established, creating the potential for conflict with humans that will not benefit the animals in the long term. If you do wish to occasionally feed badgers for the purpose of observing them (or to capture images on a trail camera), then we recommend a light scattering of shelled (unsalted and aflatoxin free) peanuts. Peanuts should not be put out during the day, however, as small birds can choke on them. Crushing them slightly can reduce this risk.
Deer often enter gardens to feed. If you want to supplement their feeding, you can provide small quantities of cereals, carrots or cattle nuts, or hay in hard winters. If you choose to feed deer, then be aware that they will not spare your garden plants! If this would be problematic, then it is best not to provide supplementary food for them. Once again, you should consider the potential for neighbouring properties to be inconvenienced.
Foxes are generalist feeders that will take a wide variety of foods. However, we recommend leaving natural food items, such as uncooked meat, eggs and fruits, or cooked meat without the bones. You should NOT provide bread, cakes, chocolate, bulbs, raisins/sultanas, or cooked meat with bones, because these could have an adverse impact on their health.
Feeding foxes may also lead to them reducing the size of their territory, which only serves to increase their reliance on the food you are providing.
Note that attracting foxes affected by sarcoptic mange to your garden could increase the risk of transmission of mites to domestic dogs. The risk is lowered if you regularly treat your dog with a spot-on parasite product that treats mange. In the event that your dog does require treatment, your vet will advise one or a combination of treatments, such as anti-parasite medication or medicated baths, which are appropriate for the breed and size of your pet.
You could report a case of a fox suffering with mange to a local wildlife rehabilitation centre, or to the RSPCA/SSPCA. Do not leave medicine out in food without advice and guidance from a qualified professional as the consequences of ingestion will not be known for many wild species.
Pine martens are attracted by sweet food items and, in the past, it was not uncommon for jam or peanut butter to be left out for them. However, we do not recommend the regular supply of such items as they may cause dental decay. Cooked and/or raw chicken eggs can be left for them instead.
If you intend to feed small mammals, we recommend the use of a feeding table. This can be put against a window to watch mice, voles and shrews. The top and outer sides of the feeding table should be covered in chicken wire or wire mesh with holes no bigger than 25mm to protect the small mammals from predators while they feed. Make a tunnel or covered walkway leading to the table, ideally from a pile of logs or other natural cover.
Mice and bank voles like mixed grain. Shrews also eat grain, but prefer fly pupae, which are available from fishing tackle shops. You can also feed small amounts of live (not dried) mealworms, which are available from pet shops, but it’s important not to provide too much food (see above).
Grey squirrels should not be fed, as they are a non-native species that causes damage to native wildlife and habitats – especially trees. They can be kept away from birdfeeders by using baffles.
Red squirrels can be fed using a hopper, in which a treadle excludes the heavier greys, or a feeder with an entrance that excludes them. Red squirrels can be provided with hazelnuts, beech nuts or sweet chestnuts in shell. Pine nuts and sunflower seeds can be appropriate in moderation. Feeding peanuts may lead to weak jaws which may compromise survival if the food is later withdrawn.
It is especially important to regularly sanitise feeders that are visited by any squirrels, to prevent the inadvertent spread of squirrel pox and other fatal diseases. See guidance on feeding station hygiene above.
If grey squirrels are interacting with feeders visited by red squirrels (even if they are not successfully obtaining food) the feeder should be removed to avoid exacerbating the spread of disease from grey to red squirrels.
We recommend that metal tube feeders are NOT used, as squirrels can become stuck upside down in them when they try to reach food at the bottom.
More information on feeding red squirrels, including a template for a home-made feeder, can be found here: Supplementary Feeding (rsne.org)
It is good to set up enclosed feeding stations for hedgehogs so that non target species are discouraged from accessing the food, and hedgehogs are protected from predation while feeding. It is vital that such stations have two exits so that animals can escape aggressive individuals if a fight breaks out over food.
Commercial, cereal-based feeds are available, but if you use them, make sure water is also provided. Alternatively, wet hedgehog food and tinned dog and cat foods are acceptable, but avoid fish-based products as they have been reported to cause stomach upsets in some individuals. Bread and milk cause diarrhoea and must NOT be given. Whole peanuts and mealworms should NOT be given.
Hedgehog highways (gaps in fences) are highly recommended to encourage visits to gardens which can serve as refuges from predation by badgers. If you have several individuals visiting, then consider providing multiple food bowls to reduce competitive aggression. Do not pick hedgehogs up to measure their weight as this causes stress, and do not provide feed regularly over winter as this may bring them out of hibernation.