Background Territoriality functions to monopolize access to resources including mates, but is costly in terms of energy and time investment. Some species reduce these costs by being less aggressive towards their neighbours than towards unfamiliar strangers, the so called dear enemy phenomenon. However, in other species individuals are more, not less aggressive towards their neighbours. It has been hypothesised that this is due to the fact that neighbours can impose a greater threat than strangers, but this has not been tested previously. Results We tested aggression in wild group-living male striped mice in a neutral test arena and demonstrate that breeders are more aggressive than non-breeding philopatrics, and that more aggression occurs during the breeding than during the non-breeding season. Male breeders were significantly more aggressive towards their neighbours than towards strangers, leading to the prediction that neighbours are the most important competitors for paternity. Using a molecular parentage analysis we show that 28% of offspring are sired by neighbouring males and only 7% by strangers. Conclusions We conclude that in male striped mice the main function of male aggression is defending paternity against their territorial neighbours.