In spite of the fact that I’d first caught the man-flu lurgy off my Good Lady over ten days previously, I was still suffering. Every now and then I’d felt a little better, so I’d gone out with the rifle – only to find the next morning that my head was pounding again…
Anyway – my mate Stuart had called to ask if I was up for some early evening deerstalking. I didn’t feel too bad, the weather looked OK – if a bit dull, but I figured that if I wrapped up warm, I’d be alright – so in a rather hopeful manner I said ‘Yes’… As the hour loomed I got everything ready, however, my truck was getting very low on fuel and I knew that had no choice but to top it up, or I’d be walking home. The problem with this is that I live in a rural area, and the three nearest filling stations are all around 11 miles away – and all of them are in completely the wrong directions. There is another one a couple of miles further on from where we were due to go stalking, however, so in spite of the fact that it’s very expensive, I thought it’d be best to go there. A quick bit of mental arithmetic confirmed that by the time I’d paid for the diesel to go to one of the others, it’d still work out cheaper. Since I don’t know the route very well, and it would involve some very narrow lanes where in places the hedges would be scraping both sides of the truck at the same time, I gave myself loads of extra time.
A gentle drive over gave me the chance to get myself in the right frame of mind for the hours ahead. This part of the world – the western edge of Exmoor, is comprised of rolling upland hills with a variety of valleys separating them. Some of these are very narrow – in south Devon they’re typically referred to as ‘cleaves’, but in the more northern areas around here they’re known as ‘goyles’. Most are filled with thick undergrowth – usually a tangled mess of brambles and various varieties of thorn. This makes them all but impenetrable to mankind, and as a result, they’re a haven for all manner of wildlife. Gorse – known as ‘fuzz’ (a local corruption of ‘furze’) is particularly common, and often occurs in great swathes. Low down amongst the thick stems, there lie deep pockets of sheltered blackness. One never knows what’s lurking in these secret places, so the best thing is usually to lie up somewhere downwind and watch quietly to see if anything is moving.
Another way to see what is about is to drive slowly along the back lanes. Both the red and roe deer are used to seeing and hearing vehicles, so provided that you don’t stop suddenly, they tend to just keep a wary eye on your passing. I spent a pleasant half hour in this way, and was pleased to find that I’d arrived at the fuel station without getting lost. I wasn’t so impressed with the price they were charging though – still, where would us local-yokels be if all the rural garages disappeared? We’re losing them at a fast enough rate as it is, so they clearly need our support.
I arrived at the farm earlier than expected, but as Stuart was there before me we had a chat with the farmer and his son. These conversations give us a good chance to catch up on the state of play as well as the local gossip. We find out such things as where the deer have been seen, how the grass has been doing, which fields have had people or machinery on them, and where the crops have been raided. The deer know where there is food to be had, but they don’t like to be disturbed – especially by the local staghounds, who had been hunting the area at the weekend.
The farmer mentioned that he was concerned about the fact that he was due to start lambing in about a week’s time. The previous year (2010), he’d lost several newly-born youngsters to foxes. I’d seen him – a gruff and very powerfully-built man of 60, almost in tears at the sight of his little charges half-eaten bodies tossed aside by the attacking foxes for their confused mothers to mourn over. As a result, I’d spent night after night up there, and shot several foxes trying to get at the helpless woolly bundles.
Although I’d been hitting them hard – I’d already shot 28 on this particular farm, there was one that had managed to evade me. It characterised itself with the unpleasant habit of depositing its faeces in the feed troughs, and seemed to spend most of its time in and around the lane behind the farmyard. It had jumped out of a hedge right in front of me on my last trip. Unfortunately, its unexpected appearance meant it’d disappeared before I was able to get the rifle off my back and onto the sticks. I’d then played cat and mouse with it for an hour or so, as it snuck in and out of the dead ground that intersperses the fields, but due to the wind direction, I couldn’t get near it. I was therefore determined to deal with it before any lambs were due.
Anyway – back to the deer; at this time of year the grass is just ‘coming good’ – in other words, it’s starting to grow well, and this can draw in large herds. Stuart said that he’d seen a group of about seventy red deer while he was out driving to a job the day before. We weren’t too sure that we’d see any on this farm though – once the hounds had been after them, they could end up miles away.
Still – we set off hopeful that luck would come our way, sploshing our way up the track that forms a narrow lane from the farmyard up into the fields, my trusty Sauer .308 over my shoulder. There had been so much rain that the ground was absolutely sodden. The soil is thick with clay, and this provides so little drainage that any water tends to either accumulate in great pools, or form wide areas of swamp. Our progress was therefore slow, ponderous and noisy. And accompanied by the unmistakeable stink of fox…
Once we’d reached the top of the hill, we were able to glass the surrounding landscape, but there wasn’t a deer to be seen. We agreed our game plan, and set off in our respective directions. As I was still feeling weak from my recent flu bug I took my time, stopping every now and then to scan the ground that was opening up below me through my Nikon binos. The wind was now behind me, but I was hopeful that the shape of the ground would mean that it would track off to one side and not straight over the ground I’d be watching. Still – while this was a pain, it would be in my favour after dark when I went after the lane fox…
I reached my vantage point without seeing anything of note – apart from the lovely Exmoor view, of course. The sun was still an hour or so off the horizon, so I settled in to observe the world. The first thing I always do is look for deer – after that, I scan every tree to see if there are any magpies, jays or crows in evidence. I use them as sentinels – after all, they have far better eyesight, and they communicate with each other, so they know more or less what is going on at any given time. Should any deer, wild boar or foxes make an appearance, they start shouting about it within moments. Sure enough, about five minutes after I settled into my favourite spot – hidden in the depths of a hedge atop a tall bank, I heard the rooks getting in a right tizzy about something, cawing and screaming like mad.
Getting my binos lined up, I could see that three ravens were on the ground, and that they were attacking something – wings and claws going everywhere. As they were in a slight dip, I couldn’t make out exactly what was happening, but it’s a fair guess that they’d killed or injured a rook, as the others kept dive bombing them. After that fuss died down, peace returned to the area. There were a few magpies about, and their chuckles told me that they were also watching the ground. But that’s all they did, as nothing moved until it started to get dark. By then I was getting cold, so I packed up and trekked back to the farm. Normally, I’d fit an add-on NV to the rifle and take my time, scanning as I went with the monocular, but I knew that I’d stand a better chance of getting the lane fox if I switched to my proper NV rig.
I also wanted to get back to the farm before the fox set off on its first patrol of the night. On reaching the yard, everything was quiet, so I unlocked my firearms cabinet and switched rifles. Once I’d got myself sorted out, I set off again, this time armed with my treasured .22-250 Sauer on which is mounted a D480 dedicated NV riflescope. Anyway – as the wind was a southerly, and the majority of the farm is to the north of the yard, I had no choice but to go downwind for the first two fields. After this I would be able to loop round and come into the designated area without being scented by my chosen target.
I took my time, stopping to scan with the NV monocular every twenty or thirty yards – but to no avail – nothing was about. A bit further on I spotted a few birds feeding in the long grass. They were smaller than woodcock – most of which have returned northwards, so they were probably snipe. One pair in particular were sitting close together, and when I saw them their eyes were the same distance apart as those of a fox. They were not nearly as bright though, but I still wanted to check – so I mounted the rifle on the sticks for a better look. The funny thing is that the eyes blinked at different times to one another, which would be most odd if they belonged to the same animal! The six times magnification of the NV riflescope (as opposed to the three times of the hand-held) meant I could get a much better ID. Their identity confirmed, I moved on.
Choosing to go through the next field was a real mistake – it looked OK at first, but I soon realised that it was an absolute quagmire. Until recently, it had contained a cattle root crop, but once the cows had been let in there, they’d turned it into a mini version of the Somme. My intention had been to exploit the fact that it was quite narrow. The wind was blowing along its length, so I hoped that it would be a good location for the caller – I could hang it on one side, and then hide in the hedgeline on the other. After wallowing around in it for a few minutes though, all I was interested in was getting onto firm ground. So much for taking it easy – I was completely whacked by the time I’d extricated myself.
The next field was home to a large flock of sheep, so I climbed up on the gate as quietly as I could, and scanned for foxes. Nope – nothing. Cutting through to the next gate, I was now looking down a long field that sloped towards the end of the lane. And – I hoped, the fox I was after. It seemed to like the big field below the one I was in, but as that was really lumpy and bumpy there were no good vantage points to shoot from. Instead, I planned to bring it up to where I was. A few nights before, I’d had a fox come to my ‘vole squeaks’ call on a farm just across the valley, so I wanted to see if I could bring the lane fox in with it in the same way.
Although we were only just off a full moon, the night was a dark as can be, thanks to the fact that moonrise was scheduled for after midnight. This meant I could choose my spot without having to worry about shadows. I wanted to get a good view down the length of the field, as well as of the hedges bordering it. There was a rise in the middle though, so I had to get my position right if I didn’t want there to be any dead ground. After much to-ing and fro-ing, I got myself in place, with the caller 75 paces out. A quick check with the hand-held showed that nothing was about, so I started the vole squeaks, and kept scanning. Nothing. After a few minutes, I decided that the call wasn’t loud enough, so I switched to a grey squirrel distress call. When that didn’t work, I went for the screaming rat. Then I gave up and moved to another field – this time on the far side of the area where I suspected the fox would be.
Once there, I tried all the usuals – vixen on heat, fox squalls, and so on. Nothing. By now, I was not only hacked-off, but getting hungry as well as tired. I resolved to do my best though, and quietly picked my way along the field above the hedgeline. At one point I climbed up onto the bank so that I could get a a look down into the area below, but of foxes there were none to be seen.
When I reached the end of the lane, I had the gateway into the target area on my left. The mud under my feet was suckingly noisy, so I had to move very carefully. I made it to the gatepost without incident, and had a quick scan with the mono. Nothing. And yet, there was an unidentified shape out in the middle of the field. Was it a feed bucket, I asked myself? Just then, the unknown structure turned around and looked at me. With bright, shining, fox eyes; ah – time to get myself sorted…
Somehow I got the sticks in position and the rifle on top without making a sound. I switched the scope on, but not the laser illuminator. I didn’t want there to be any chance of spooking it. I looked around, and yep – there it was, about 100 yards out. It was looking away from me again, unaware of my presence, so I took my time and tweaked the focus to my satisfaction. When that was right, I gave it a bit of laser – then a bit more. I was now happy that everything was how I wanted it, so I slipped the safety off. I’d already braced my feet, with my left arm straight out gripping the sling swivel and the sticks at the same time. Just then, the fox turned and looked up the field in my direction. I don’t think he had any idea I was there, but by then a Nosler ballistic-tip was already travelling towards it at some 3,400 feet/sec. A loud ‘pop’ told me all I needed to know – it was game over.
I counted the range at 110 paces, so my guess at 100 yards was about right. As I suspected, it was a dog fox – not massively-built, but it was almost certainly the best fed one I’d ever seen. I have no idea what it had been feeding on, but its gut was so big it looked like it had a private back door to a pie shop!
The farmer was very pleased with my efforts, so all the effort had been well worthwhile.
22nd February 2011