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Living with Urban Wildlife: non-lethal control

Toni V. Shephard

Toni V. Shephard notes that less and less of us are prepared to deal with 'pests' using the traditional method i.e. killing them, and offers her perspectives and solutions on human/wildlife conflict.....

The human population has surpassed seven billion and continues to increase by a quarter of a million people every day. That's 150 additional people every minute, all needing energy, water, food and space to inhabit. The inevitable and unrelenting urban expansion which results leaves precious few natural refuges for other species. No surprise then that habitat loss and degradation is the number one cause of global biodiversity loss. 

Yet, some versatile species - such as foxes, rats, pigeons and gulls - manage to not only survive but thrive in our artificial landscapes. Sadly, few people see these animals as triumphant vestiges of the natural world but rather unwelcome scroungers who dare to live in our midst.

The irony is that we have created the perfect habitat for these adaptable species in our cities and suburbs. The 7.2 tonnes of food thrown away in the UK every year ensures they are never short of a meal; while many man-made structures provide safe places to nest or raise young away from natural predators. Many of us even go one step further - deliberately providing food and nesting sites for species we like, then bemoaning other animals that take advantage of the bounty.

Of course, some city dwellers relish encounters with all urban wildlife - feeding pigeons in the park or foxes in their garden is the only chance many get to engage with nature. But even the most tolerant animal 'lover' gets annoyed when a mouse chews through the electrical wiring or squirrels in the loft keep them awake to all hours. Just like with our human neighbours, sometimes conflicts arise and we must seek out a humane and effective solution.

Killing 'nuisance' animals is often seen as a simple way to solve human/wildlife conflicts. In reality, culling is rarely an effective long-term solution. Nature abhors a vacuum so removing the existing animals simply creates a vacant niche which new individuals quickly occupy. This means that culling must be done continuously; as soon as you stop you are back to square one, which may be great for commercial pest controllers, but is a colossal waste of time and money for homeowners and local authorities - and of course an unnecessary loss of animal lives.

Holistic solutions

Truly effective solutions require a more holistic approach that addresses the conditions which attract wildlife into conflict with us and even questions whether there is really a conflict at all. Devised by the Humane Society of the United States, and suitable for homeowners, businesses and local authorities alike, the following six-step evaluation provides a framework for finding humane solutions to human/wildlife conflicts:

1. Ascertain the problem-and consider whether it is a problem at all. For example, if a family of foxes moves into a back garden, how likely is it that they will attack a child or pet? Educating ourselves about the behaviour of other species often leads to the realisation that they pose no credible threat.

As Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University's Mammal Research Unit points out, every year in England around 210,000 people are attacked by dogs and 800 people are hospitalised due to insect stings, while bites from foxes are extremely rare.

2. If there is a credible problem, collect information that will help solve it. Identify the species involved, the kind of damage they are causing, how long it has been happening, whether there are young animals present, and what can be done to solve the conflict in a humane and permanent way. Photograph and record as much evidence as possible, including sounds (especially cries of young animals), footprints, tooth or claw marks, faeces left behind, etc.

3. Assess the seriousness and extent of the problem. Important considerations are safety or health concerns for people or pets, the likelihood that the conflict will happen again and whether the damage appears to be seasonal or ongoing. Many problems with animals last only a short time, or happen only during certain seasons. For example, jackdaws nesting in a chimney will leave once their young have fledged.

4. Take action, but only after all the facts have been collected. Action should be one of the last steps, and it should not involve killing animals. Exclusion, environmentally-friendly repellents, changing human or animal behaviour and habitat modification are all viable non-lethal strategies (see action for residents below).

5. Evaluate the results. Did the action resolve the conflict or merely address the symptoms? The solution should get at the underlying cause of the problem if it's going to be effective over the long-term.

6. Seek help - you may not be able to solve the problem by yourself. Contact a professional non-lethal wildlife solutions company (listed at the end of this article) for help and advice.

Action for residents

While you may not be keeping close tabs on the condition of your house, the animals in your neighbourhood certainly are. Deteriorated soffits and fascia boards, holes in loft vents, open chimneys, ridged roof tiles and cracks in walls all provide opportunities for animals to enter your house in search of a warm, dry nesting site and reliable source of food. Permanently preventing animals from entering buildings is the only long-term solution to wildlife problems.

Before closing, sealing, or capping any potential entry points, make absolutely sure there are no animals present inside. Plug suspect entry points loosely with insulation, paper or cloth that animals which may be using the space inside can easily push aside. For a few days, check to see if the material has moved; if not, the opening can be sealed.

Regardless of the season, it is always possible that young animals are present. Squirrels can have two litters a year; one in early spring and one in late summer/early autumn. Be careful not to separate mother from young, doing so will not only cause the inhumane death of the young, but can result in the mother tearing her way back in to retrieve her young. Be tolerant and wait a few weeks until the family has vacated, then make repairs to prevent animals from moving in again.

If you can't wait for the animals to leave on their own, the next best strategy is humane eviction-gently harassing the animals so they'll move to an alternative location. Wild animals have detailed knowledge of their home ranges and alternative places of refuge will be known. A combination of unpleasant smells and sounds can often persuade unwanted wildlife to move to another refuge. Rags soaked in a strong smelling substance such as cider vinegar or citronella (but not ammonia), bright lights and a loud radio left on during the night will make your home a much less attractive place to live.

Other tips for preventing unwanted wildlife visitors:

- secure rubbish bins with cords, ropes or weights;
- put bins out the morning of collection, not the night before;
- keep branches trimmed six feet away from your house and outbuildings to limit access for wildlife and prevent damage to the roof that may allow animal entry in the future;
- cover and secure compost piles; never compost meat scraps;
- do not try to hand-feed wildlife; it's in their best interest to maintain a healthy scepticism of humans.

These suggestions are general guidelines only. Recommended methods for resolving conflicts with wildlife may depend upon additional aspects of the situation and the species involved (bats in particular). When in doubt about the best course of action, get professional advice.

Live-trapping and relocation

Well-meaning people often resort to what they see as a humane solution to wildlife conflicts - live-trapping animals and releasing them in a near-by park or other natural area. While it sounds like a good idea, the truth is that live-trapping and relocation rarely ends well for wildlife, nor is it a permanent solution. Wild animals often do not adapt quickly to new surroundings, no matter how inviting that habitat may seem to humans.

In fact, the odds are heavily stacked against any animal which is released in a strange area. They will likely have been dumped in another animal's territory and may be chased out or attacked; they don't know where to go to escape from predators; they may not know how to find food or water in this landscape; and they may be desperate to find their young who could still be back at the original location.

The perils of relocation are demonstrated by a 2004 study of grey squirrels in the USA. A staggering 97 percent of animals who were live-trapped and relocated from suburban areas to a large forest either died soon after release or disappeared from the release area.

Tolerance is the way forward

At both a local and national level, the traditional reaction to human/wildlife conflict i.e. culling, is becoming increasingly unpalatable to a wide cross section of people. Finding non-lethal ways to co-exist with our wild neighbours is a more compassionate and cost-effective option that will become increasingly important as our own species continues to grow unchecked.

Providers of humane, non-lethal wildlife solutions in the UK;

Humane Urban Wildlife Deterrence: www.jbryant.co.uk, 01732 357355

Fox-A-Gon: www.fox-a-gon.co.uk, 07768903043

Foxolutions: www.foxolutions.co.uk, 0844 8040630

Humane Wildlife Solutions: www.humanewildlifesolutions.co.uk, 01450 377200

Pigeon Control Advisory Service: www.picasuk.com, 0844 7366272

Animal Aid provides advice sheets for local authorities on dealing with common 'problem' species: www.animalaid.org.uk, 01732 364546

Toni V. Shephard is an urban ecologist with a PhD in Animal Behaviour. She is based at the University of Exeter's Centre for Research into Animal Behaviour and provides advice on wildlife issues to various animal protection organisations including Animal Aid.

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