As strange as it may sound, “barn foxes” might be the solution of the future to rodent control in sustainable agriculture.
It’s no secret that outdoor-roaming cats wreak havoc on native wildlife in the United States. In fact, multiple studies have demonstrated that outdoor cats present the single greatest threat to wildlife in North America, even compared to traffic, habitat loss, and climate change.
Outdoor life isn’t great for the kitties, either. Indoor-only cats can be expected to live to an average age of 17 years– sometimes even into their twenties– while their free-roaming counterparts usually succumb to disease, fights, predators, traffic, or human cruelty before their fifth birthdays.
When veterinarians and wildlife biologists encourage indoor-only homes for cats, the most frequent objections come from people who own small-scale farms. How can a farmer manage rodents in their barns without the help of barn cats? After all, humans have been using cats for rodent control since the earliest days of domestication.
European settlers brought the tradition of “barn cats” from Europe, where European wildcats– which are the same species as domestic cats and closely related to them– exist naturally and have co-evolved with their prey so they cause little damage to the environment. But this age-old tradition doesn’t work out so well in the United States, where house cats and their relatives only recently moved.
Despite the reputation they carried with them through settlers, house cats and “barn cats” in the United States are actually very bad at rodent control. The largest study of its kind found that outdoor cats actually tend to ignore rats, killing only three of them and often walking right past them to target smaller prey, like voles, lizards, and songbirds, decimating the populations of these native, more vulnerable animals.
Enter the barn fox.
Red and grey foxes eat slightly larger prey than cats, making them prime candidates for wiping out an infestation of rats in a barn. Foxes in general eat relatively few small birds and lizards because their chase-and-pounce hunting technique doesn’t work well on most of them, and many are too small to be worth the energy a fox might put into hunting them. And, when a fox is native to the area where it hunts, it’s extremely unlikely to have a serious adverse effect on native wildlife because its prey has co-evolved with it and the two animals have coexisted sustainably for millennia.
Some farmers are hesitant about allowing foxes on their land due to their reputation as livestock killers, but much of that reputation is undeserved. Red and grey foxes in the United States are much smaller than many people imagine and account for less than .02% of sheep and lamb losses, and effectively no cattle losses, in the United States, according to the USDA. While foxes do pose a threat to chickens, so do the “barn cats” and free-roaming dogs they might replace, which is why it’s critically important to keep poultry animals adequately contained with non lethal repellent measures.
You can’t exactly pick up a wild fox on Craigslist to move it into your barn, but you can offer your farmland as a release site for wild foxes that need a new home, and can prohibit hunting of foxes on your land, to encourage these helpful critters to move in and help control pests.
Does this mean that barn cats need to be killed? Of course not! Barn cat programs are an excellent way to rehome feral cats that can’t be rehabilitated to indoor life as pets. These rehoming programs are an excellent alternative to simply allowing barn cats to breed unchecked, or to euthanizing feral cats.
But, as animal lovers nationwide start to work to reduce the number of homeless and outdoor cats, we need to start rethinking the tradition of the “barn cat,” and giving native wildlife the chance to control rodents within their own natural territories.