3rd November 2012
In years gone by, street kids would try to elicit donations from passers-by with the words “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. For reasons that will become clear further on, I would amend that to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Night Vision and Fox”. It all began when I undertook a late afternoon stalk around the top edge of a stretch of extensive woodland to get a feel for the lie of the land. Although I’d seen it from afar as it lies next to a chicken farm I look after, I hadn’t been given permission to shoot over it until a week or so earlier. I was accompanied by my mate Paul – back then I was officially his mentor for his firearms licence, but unofficially, he was my gate-bitch and apprentice fox-shooter. He’d whopped a few bunnies with his HMR, and then I’d shot a fox with the .204 Kimber. We didn’t make it all of the way around the area, but we’d seen enough to whet our appetites.
Recce-patrol accomplished, I planned to go back a few days later for an after dark session with the NV. Paul had recently purchased a dedicated NV scope which was mounted on his .243, so between us we were well kitted out for the job in hand. Unfortunately, the return trip had to wait as the weather was awful. A few days later, however, it was finally dry enough for me to give it a try – but I had to go on my own as Paul was away working. Before setting off, I called the farmer and outlined my plans – in passing I also asked if he’d seen any foxes about. ‘Ah’, he said – ‘My wife was walking the dogs this afternoon, and they put one up in the field that looks down over Tony’s farmyard’. On hearing this I said I’d have a quick look around the chicken sheds. I didn’t think it’d take long, as the fox population on the farm has plummeted over the last year, and I rarely see a thing. No – I was far more interested in getting up to the top of the opposite hill to see what was about. I knew it’d be a tough thing to do in the dark as there are all manner of obstacles to negotiate, but having done a dry run in daylight, at least I knew roughly where they were.
It’d been raining heavily earlier in the day, so if the south-westerly wind died down there was a significant risk of fog. I also had to keep an eye on the time. I only had a couple of hours before the moon – which was just past being full, would rise above the horizon, and in the clear sky, it’d be a nightmare. There was one other consideration to take into account too – being the Saturday nearest to November 5th, it was effectively Bonfire Night. From previous experience, I knew that even though I’d be right out in the sticks, all the various hamlets and villages would be having their own firework displays, and it’d be a noisy evening. Still – I’d successfully shot foxes while the celebrations were going in previous years, so I wasn’t that worried.
Driving up through the yard, I took care to avoid running over the farm cat which appeared from nowhere and dived across in front of me. Dropping the Land Rover into first gear, I booted it up the extremely steep and rocky track that leads to the field where the chickens were recently relocated. Their sheds have to be moved regularly to minimise the risk of disease, in spite of the fact that the birds are free range. To avoid spooking anything that was in there, I drove past the gate and then stopped short of the area under the cover of a tall hedge. This gave me a nice quiet spot to prepare all the kit. It took a couple of minutes to get it all sorted – it’s always worth taking your time to make sure everything is right before moving off. After pulling my woolly hat and face veil on, I fitted the batteries to the mini-thermal and hung it around my neck. Then I wriggled the NV spotter harness on, and clicked a magazine into the Sauer. With my shooting sticks retrieved from the back of the truck, I was ready.
A furtive peek past the side of the Land Rover with the thermal showed that the field in front of me only held a couple of bunnies, so I moved a bit further out for a more extensive scan around. Almost straight away I spotted a fox through a gap in the next hedge. I had the rifle up and ready in moments, and when my quarry turned sideways on I fired a shot. There was a thump and it flipped over – and out of sight. There was no sign of it, but as it’d fallen beyond a thicket of brambles, I wasn’t surprised.
Checking that nothing else was around, I picked my way through the stubble to the hedge – but as I got there I heard the distinctive sounds of a nervous horse in the next field. Damn – it should have been shut away hours ago. I tried talking to it to calm it down, and while this worked to a degree, every time I moved it neighed and ran about. Rather than worry it any more I decided to come back for a more extensive search later, by which time I hoped it would be locked up. I gave the area a quick scan around with both the thermal and the torch – but there was still no sign of the fox.
Heading back towards the truck, I checked the area around the chicken sheds. There were three small white heat sources by the hedge on the far side, which were quickly confirmed with the NV spotter as rabbits. Rather than splosh through all the mud to see over the rise that divides the field in half, I decided to backtrack and check the large pasture next door instead. This is popular with rabbits, and is therefore a good place to look for foxes. It’s not an easy place to scan though, as there are two dips that run across it – these create a lot of dead ground, and in order to see into them you have to get up as high as you can. In turn, that means that you end up skylined, and so you have to move very carefully.
I spotted a couple of bunnies straight away, but they were running like hell. I wondered whether they were trying to evade me or something else, so quickly looked around to my left, and there, about 120 yards out, was a large fox. I’d been carrying my tripod sticks with my thumb located such that I can flip the legs out quickly. My Sauer slid smoothly off my shoulder and was up moments later. I cranked the scope up and then switched the laser on using its lowest setting (of nine), making sure that it was pointing away from the fox so that it didn’t see the illuminator coming on.
As I swivelled around, I found and tracked it, getting the focus just right as I did so. My worry was that it’d head up and over the brow out of sight, but luckily it stopped and sat back to watch me. Big mistake – a ballistic-tip hit it hard, and it collapsed on the spot with a very convincing thump. I watched it with the thermal for a few seconds to make sure it didn’t twitch, and when I was satisfied it wasn’t going anywhere, I marked where it’d fallen and returned to the chicken sheds. I didn’t go over straight away as I wanted to drive the truck up so that I could get all my pro camera gear out to take some decent photos for the book I was writing.
Although the thermal does an excellent job, it can be difficult to tell one heat source from another. Two rabbits standing next to each other can look just like a fox, for example. The NV spotter is therefore much faster when looking for Charlies as the laser picks their eyes up so well. A quick scan along the far hedge showed that the three bunnies I’d seen earlier were still there. Moving my view left and up the field, I saw nothing more, so checked back down along the row of sheds.
Up until the last moment there was nothing there, but just as I was about to move on I realised that right in front of me there was a bright set of eyes. Doing a double-take, I looked again – it was a small animal that was only some thirty feet away, so common sense suggested it was the farm cat again. I wasn’t at all sure though, so I reduced the tube’s brightness and twisted the front lens to get a better close range focus. I was surprised to see that whatever it was had a dead chicken in its mouth.
I still couldn’t tell whether it was the cat though, so I kept watching – a second or so later it turned its head slightly away, and I realised it had a long snout. By then it could only have been twenty feet from me – and it was directly downwind. I can only assume it hadn’t scented me due to all the firework and bonfire smoke that was coming over the valley from the nearest village. It must have sussed me, however, because by the time I had the rifle up, it was nowhere to be seen. The thermal soon found it though, and a loud pop signalled that the .22-250 had done its job again. The only problem was that it’d fallen in amongst a load of low vegetation and it took me a couple of minutes to find it – even though I knew almost exactly where it was.
Turning the torch on, I found that it was a tiny vixen in terrible condition with what looked like extensive mange. My round had pretty well blown it apart, and from its guts poured forth a sea of partly digested matter, including a vast number of chicken feathers. This was certainly not a rural fox – I was immediately suspicious that it had been dumped by one of the so-called ‘charities’, once again imposing their version of both environmental and economic vandalism on the countryside. It’s just a shame that a class action prosecution couldn’t be brought against them by a number of the shooting and farming organisations working together. I’m sure that enough evidence could be gathered if there was the will. I know several farmers who’ve caught people in vans/trucks with caged foxes inside, so it shouldn’t take long to construct a case…
Carrying the carcass back to the gateway, I then went back to the truck for another look into the field beyond. The thermal revealed a large white heat source in the middle, but when I looked with the NV I couldn’t see anything. I persisted though, and after a while a set of bright eyes suddenly popped up out of nowhere. A fox had been there all the time – presumably it had been lying in a rut eating something like a bunny. The Sauer did its job again, and another loud ‘whump‘ told its own tale. This time it was a large dog fox. There were no obvious signs of mange, but as it was far too messy for any photos, I carried it back and put it alongside the small vixen. On the way over, however, I stopped for a scan around and spotted another set of eyes. This time it was heading along the hedge on my side of the chicken sheds. I couldn’t believe it – this farm had only produced a couple of foxes since the summer, and now they were all over the place.
With the carcass out of my hands, I snuck back into a spot from where I could see some of the sheds. Through the thermal I could see that there was a white fox-like shape up at the top, so I began circling around the field to get into a better position, putting my scent trail well away from it. For most of the time I couldn’t see where it was due to the rise, but about a third of the way up I found it, crossing from my left to my right.
The stubble I was trying to navigate through was very noisy, however, I discovered that by timing my footsteps to coincide with the fireworks going off, I could move almost silently. When I was happy that I was in the right place, I set the sticks up and got the reticle on it – when the moment was right I loosed a round and another fox went down. This one was a very fat vixen – in perfect condition, apart from a two inch long section of her tail which was bald. Once again, this was almost certainly mange. As she looked to be a good candidate for the camera, I decided to drive the truck into the field so that I could take some decent photos. Before moving on I stuck the fox caller into the ground as a marker of where she was lying. I could have left the sticks to denote her position, but if I’d seen another fox, I’d have been unable to shoot it.
By then my hands were suffering – a bitter wind had been blowing since I got there, and there was an icy frost on the ground. At the time I was totally unaware that just a few miles away in Somerset there had been a heavy snowfall. As I began making my way back to the truck, I pondered the evening’s events. It’d been sufficiently eventful for me to write the story up – but if I did, what would I call it? I’d shot four foxes (possibly five, but until I’d seen a body, the extra one wouldn’t count), so perhaps I could go with ‘Guy Fourkes Night’?
Every few yards I paused and scanned around, but apart from a couple of bunnies, I saw nothing. Back at the gateway, I had a last look with the NV, and was somewhat taken aback to get a pair of eyes shining straight back at me from inside one of the empty sheds. A quick wiggle that a hula-hoop champion would have been proud of saw the rifle off my left shoulder and up onto the sticks. Another bang from the rifle was followed by a thud from the target, and I’d dropped my fifth confirmed fox of the evening. I grinned inwardly and said to myself ‘Well that’s screwed my title up!’. Now I’d have to come up with an alternative…
The rest of my session involved driving about with the camera and collecting the carcasses together. The first one was a huge dog fox, and was in excellent condition – albeit with a bullet hole through its chest. Luckily, it had literally fallen where it was hit, so it had landed on the exit wound. As a result, there was almost no blood in sight, thus making it an ideal model for my book. I don’t know if had been dumped or not – there was no sign of mange or anything else to lead me to conclude it was a refugee. Since we are more or less at the start of the breeding season, it is certainly possible it was a local dominant male that had come in to check out the immigrant vixens.
Having gathered them all together, I left them in a pile for the farmer to dispose of – he wasn’t in when I knocked on his door, but he called me the next morning to pass on his thanks. When I answered the ‘phone he opened with ‘Blimey – that was a bit of a massacre, wasn’t it?’. Apparently, he’d been so distracted when he went up to see to the chickens that he’d walked straight past the heap of foxes. Heading back, however, he came upon the scene of devastation, and when he’d picked his jaw up off the floor he was absolutely delighted to see I’d knocked five down. We discussed the near-certainty that some or all of them had been dumped, and he agreed that they didn’t look like any local animals he’d seen before. He also said that another fox had been seen down by the lane, so there was at least one more for me to deal with.
I knew I’d got a busy week coming up – not only did I have to return to this farm, but I’d also got the go ahead to visit the keeper on a local 2,000 acre estate after waiting over a year to get clearance. On top of that there was a fox with my name on it at the 5,500 acre estate that I’d taken on a few months earlier. And then on the Saturday I’d been invited to attend a driven fox shoot across a number of local farms. And somehow I also had to squeeze a bit of deer stalking in. Oh well, they do say there’s no peace for the wicked…!