Wild and wonderful

What should we feed our wildlife? 


WORDS: Charlotte Long

Feeding the ducks and other species of wildlife evokes happy memories for many, a chance to get up close and find out more about animals we would otherwise rarely get to see.

In a human world that is becoming more health-conscious by the day, our waterways are also becoming ‘no-dough’ areas, as more and more environmental campaigners are urging people to think about what they are feeding our animals in the wild.

Feeding wildlife is indeed a well-intentioned pastime, but rarely do we think about what the possible implications of mindless food choices can do to the animals and their habitats.


Ducks and birds aren’t just jumping on the bandwagon of the ‘gluten-free’ trend; bread can be extremely detrimental to their health. Last year, 6 million loaves of bread were thrown in to the UK’s waterways, which not only damaged the wildfowl’s health, but also polluted their environments. Large amounts of bread can lead to possible fatal or disabling health conditions such as ‘angel wing’, a disease that is caught when ducks fill up on stodgy bread and do not get the necessary nutrients they need.


Llewelyn Lowen from the RSPCA’s wildlife department says that bread is one of the worst foods you can give ducks, “bread should never be given to wild animals – it is very low in nutrients and energy and has been likened by many as “junk food for wildlife”. Feeding on too much bread is a particular problem for water-birds like ducks and swans as it can cause malnutrition as well as affecting their growth, leading to a wing deformity.”

Although, when it comes to feeding birds, bread is not the only food to be avoided. “Desiccated coconut or uncooked rice or pasta should never be left out as food; they pose a serious threat as they will swell up inside a bird’s stomach. Avoid salty fats also, as these can be toxic to birds, and salted nuts, which cause dehydration,” Llewelyn continues.

Not only can feeding the wrong stuff badly effect wildlife, it can also damage their environment too, says Sarah Buckingham from The Wildlife Trusts, “In the case of wildfowl, uneaten bread can lead to algal blooms in waterways, allowing bacteria to spread and attracting rats.”

Another animal suffering some prickly consequences of a poorly educated food selection is the humble hedgehog.


“Many people do not realise that hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and should not be given cow’s milk as this can cause very bad diarrhoea, particularly in young hedgehogs,” says Llewelyn.


It seems to be tradition and common misconception that has led to us to feeding our wildlife the wrong food; children books that depict images of feeding bread to the ducks or old wives’ tales about leaving milk out for hedgehogs.


But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Since the Canal & River Trust launched their campaign last year, 80,000 less loaves of bread have been thrown in to waterways – the equivalent of 140 Double Decker buses full of bread.


People are also showing more concern as to what to feed wildlife, according to Llewelyn, “In recent years, It’s clear that those who engage in feeding wildlife are taking a greater interest in what they should or should not be feeding them, how they should be feeding them and the consequences of engaging in the irresponsible feeding of wildlife.”


Jamie Wyver, a spokesperson from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, echoes that sentiment, “Now over 60% of the UK’s adults feed garden birds. It’s also very encouraging that the RSPB has over 1.1 million members, showing the huge support for wildlife among the general public. We’re certainly seeing more people wanting to get involved in giving nature a home.”


So what should we be feeding our wildlife? An important factor to consider when purchasing bird feed is to ensure the peanuts are the right quality, says Llewelyn, “Peanuts should only be offered to birds if they have been sold for human consumption, or sourced from a reputable feed shop; this is because peanuts can otherwise often be contaminated with an invisible toxin.”


Kay Bullen, from The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, recommends ‘Spike’s Semi Moist Food’, ‘Spike’s Dry Food’ and ‘I Love Hedgehogs’ food for hedgehogs. You can also safely feed hedgehogs meat (not fish) based dog or cat food.


Badgers can also be fed dog food (although cereal based), with lightly cooked meat, cheese and peanuts. Feeding badgers, in limited amounts, can help to increase the chance of cubs surviving in hot, dry summers and also help all badgers during long cold, frosty periods - when natural food is in short supply.


A good brand of wildfowl food is ‘Wild Things Swan & Duck Food ’ but if you fancy heading down to the local park to feed the ducks and swans, Jamie from the RSPB recommends uncooked oats, grain or defrosted frozen peas.


However it is worth noting that when feeding wildlife, it’s advised to be wary of how it could affect their natural habitat and food chain.


“In general, the advice for regularly feeding any wildlife is to be aware that birds or animals could become reliant on artificial feeding. It's best to provide food in times of greatest need, such as winter when food is scarce and in spring, when there are young, hungry mouths to feed, or as an occasional treat to encourage them for observation,” says Kay Haw, conservation advisor at The Woodland Trust.


Feeding wildlife can be enjoyable and educational, but with more and more information available, and the right products accessible on the market, there’s no excuse for our wild animals to be living on a junk-food diet.