Twelfth Night – Part One

Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is centred on how various characters pretend to be something that they are not. For reasons that will become obvious, I felt its title would make an appropriate label for this account. The story originally started at the end of November 2012, when I was given Bruce’s ‘phone number – he’s the gamekeeper of a local prestigious pheasant shoot. I called and spoke to him a few times, and although he said he was keen for me to take on the fox control there, for reasons that are still not clear to me, it never quite happened. I suspect that someone behind the scenes had said no.

Anyway – fast forward a year, and I was chatting to the shoot captain, Bob, in the village pub one night. He asked how the foxing was going, and I casually mentioned that my mate and I had taken on looking after a very well known and highly regarded shoot estate a few miles up the road. I went on to say that the keeper there had called us in about once a week since the beginning of summer, and that we’d successfully taken every single fox he’d sent us after. At this, Bob’s ears pricked up, and he suggested that I give Bruce another try as he knew there were a few lamp-shy foxes about – he also said he’d go and have a chat with him about it the next morning.

A couple of days later I tried again, and although Bruce was enthusiastic, he was clearly sceptical that anyone would be able to get near the lamp-shy foxes that were causing him problems. It turned out that not only were they killing his birds, but they were also ruining a couple of his best drives. This was because the foxes were making a run for it and spooking the pheasants prematurely – consequently, they’d already flown before the Guns were in position.

That’s all very well on an informal shoot, but when the clients – mostly hedge-fund managers and the like, had paid large sums to be there, it was simply not acceptable. Even worse was the fact that the problem foxes often ran out in full view during the shoot, but as ground game is not allowed for safety reasons, they couldn’t be touched. After discussing it further, we agreed that Bruce would drop by to show me the boundaries on a map. A week went by before he was able to find the time to do so, but one Sunday afternoon, I finally had everything sorted out, so I ventured over for my maiden visit that evening.

I waited until it was dark and then drove over. I intended to do a calling session next to a large block of woodland where a lot of the birds roosted, but thought I’d start out by stopping at a few gateways for a general look around on the way into the estate. A couple of the fields gave excellent views, but the others were just too steep to see anything meaningful. Nothing showed up with the thermal imager, so I carried on to just below the woods and parked up. I was already wearing my face veil and gloves, and the mini-thermal and night vision monocular were in place on my chest, so all I had to do was grab the rifle, sticks and caller.

That done, I faced my first problem – how to get into the field. I had a basic choice – to pass through or over the gate, but this turned out to be more difficult than it would seem. Instead of finding a single solid structure, I discovered there were actually two gates loosely lashed together with baler twine. The whole assembly was therefore decidedly unsafe, so I had to take great care in getting both myself and my kit across without unfortunate incident occurring.

That done, I looked up the side of the valley to see if there was a good place to put the caller. To my disappointment, I found that there was a rise about halfway up, making it impossible to see enough of the field for a calling session to be worthwhile. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s better to not use the caller at all, rather than to use it in the wrong place and educate the foxes that they represent danger. Hoping that I’d get a better view from the top of the hill, I set out to reach the top. Every few yards I stopped to check that no Charlies had appeared. This also gave me the chance to keep my breathing under control – there’s little point in trying to take a shot if you can’t keep the rifle still because your chest is rising and falling too much.

A few minutes later, I finally made it to the upper boundary – but the view from there only confirmed my fears. There was simply too much dead ground down below. Looking around with the NV spotter, I found there were two crossing points into the fields on the other side a few yards further along the hedge. As both appeared to be properly constructed stiles, I was hopeful that I’d be able to cross them without too much hassle. The first one led into a meadow that had nothing in it, so I moved on to spy out matters from the second one. This was a bit overgrown, but at least the pasture beyond it ran along the upper edge of a big patch of woodland that was known to hold foxes.

It was hard to know what I’d find on the other side though, as the ground continued to rise for about a hundred yards or so. Creeping along close to the hedge on my left, I soon saw that there was a large flock of sheep about three hundred yards away. In amongst them were various things that gave out white heat signatures – one of them was soon identified with the NV as a metal feeder. Two more were confirmed as hares.

Another, however, was impossible to put a name to. It was lying motionless on the ground looking away from me – there were no eyes visible. It could have been a sheep, but as the others were so far away, I thought that unlikely, unless it was either injured or dead. I tried comparing it with various other objects in order to try and calibrate them against what I was seeing, but without success – what the hell was it?

Just then I found that a few feet to its right, and about seventy yards ahead of me was a badger. More or less as soon as I spotted it though, two others started squabbling close behind me, on the other side of the hedge. Their squeals and skitters caught his attention, and he stood there looking right in my direction. Scanning to his right, I suddenly caught a bright flash of fox eyes. I had the rifle up on the sticks in no time, and tracked it as it ran towards the hedge.

Making a loud smooching noise with my lips stopped him momentarily – and that was long enough for a ballistic tip to smack him down with a loud whump. He dropped on the spot, and immediately cycling the bolt I swivelled round to check the unknown object once more – and found that it was now standing up and staring straight at me with big fox eyes and long pointy fox ears. I steadied the reticle between the two bright retinal reflections and then aimed up slightly to allow for the close range. A brief squeeze of the trigger was met with a loud crack as the bullet hit its skull. Well – that was an exciting ten seconds! I checked that nothing else was in sight and then retrieved the spent cases. As I reload my own ammo, I’m incredibly fastidious about ensuring I don’t lose any of my precious brass.

It was easy to find the carcasses with the thermal as the grass was short – their white shapes stood out vividly against the cold ground. Both were really fat males – presumably due to a rich and plentiful diet of pheasant. The first one had a neat bullet hole in its chest – the second, however, was a bit of a mess. It had been hit between the eyes, and the back of its head was missing, with the contents of its cranium liberally spread around the place. As I wanted Bruce to see hard evidence of my activities, I had to drag the carcasses all the way back to the truck. Luckily, it was downhill most of the way, so in the end it wasn’t too bad. His place was only around the corner, so I chucked the corpses on the bonnet and drove round, leaving them in front of his Land Rover. By then it was getting quite late, so I headed home.

The next morning (Monday) I had a quick chat with Bruce on the ‘phone – he was delighted with my efforts. When I said I’d be going back again that night, he asked me to check a large area of stubble at the far end of the estate, as well as a field right behind his house where a particularly shy fox seemed to spend a lot of time.

One of the routines I’ve established when I get back from a night’s shooting is to ensure any batteries that need topping up are immediately placed on charge. That way, I can be confident they’re ready for use the next evening – it’s a bit late to do anything about it if you discover that the power supply for one of your key pieces of kit has gone flat just as you’re leaving. I use so many things that rely on batteries that this is a critical matter. The list includes the mini-thermal, NV spotter and its IR illuminator, NV riflescope and its IR illuminator, Foxpro caller and its remote control, pocket camera, two torches, and so on.

Where possible, I carry a couple of back-ups in my pocket as well as a large collection of them in the truck, but this isn’t much help if you’ve left it parked up a mile or so away. As I work from home I like to do a double-check sometime during the day. If nothing else it makes a pleasant change from dealing with ‘phone calls and emails, and it helps me to get into the right state of mind for the evening.

Having got everything organised, I set out about an hour after dark – one of the good things about NV shooting late in the year is that it gives me time to have a bite to eat with my Good Lady and to remind her what I look like. After a brief drive over, I started out by visiting the stubble fields – there’s a good parking spot by the road, so I left the truck there and went to explore.

The first field had three rabbits nibbling away at the fresh shoots growing up between the old barley stalks. There were no foxes though, and as the topography didn’t lend itself to the caller, I carried on. The track was a bit of a marsh, and at the end was what looked like a water-filled tank trap – a feature I later discovered is referred to by the keeper as ‘the bomb-hole’. Trying to move quietly when your feet keep sinking into thick sucking mud is a nightmare, but somehow I made it up onto a patch of dry bank without making too much noise.

From there I scanned around again – once more, there were a few bunnies scattered about, and in the next field over I could see a large number of sheep. Although I generally like to check out any nearby flocks as foxes seem to spend a lot of time in their vicinity, this was not an option due to there being a deep gully in the way. The wind was also blowing straight towards the field – this would make it impossible to access without being scented, so I therefore chose to put the caller down the hill to my left. As I was placing it, I caught a sound on the wind – standing back to listen more carefully, I realised that two foxes were fighting somewhere over the top of the hill, not far from where my truck was parked. Not wanting to be distracted, I quickly went back to the job in hand.

If all went to plan, the caller’s location would result in any approaching foxes coming in from the woods below me – that would give me enough time to spot them and get ready. I started with the ‘vixen on heat’ track, and within a couple of minutes the thermal showed that there was a white shape running in from the left. It was still quite a long way out though, and I could see that it was going to circle around to approach as I expected from the right (downwind) side.

I switched over from the thermal to the riflescope while it was still about 200 yards out, and then tracked it in from there. I let it go another fifty yards and then muted the caller – before it got there though, it suddenly dived off back towards the woods. All I can think is that it got a whiff of human from the caller – anyway it went about another fifty yards before pausing to look back. At that instant it took a round in the engine room.

I left it a minute or two, and started the vixen call again. About five minutes later, another white shape appeared, this time from further down the valley. It followed very much the same path as the first one, and even ran off to the right at about the same point. Once again it made the mistake of stopping for a last look over its shoulder – and a last look it proved to be.

With two foxes down, I was feeling pleased with myself – it was not a bad result to take four foxes in two nights on new ground – especially as these were very wary animals. While I was thinking this, the foxes began fighting over the top of the hill again. They sounded a bit closer this time, so I decided to see if I could find them. I left the caller in position, as I figured I might want to run it again a bit later.

Trying to find a quiet footfall in stubble is always difficult, but somehow I managed to locate a ‘tramline’ – that is, where the combine’s wheels had been, and consequently made it to the crest without making too much noise. To my disappointment, I found that the foxes were on the far side of a tall hedge, and there were no suitable gates in sight. While I was looking at the boundary through the thermal and wondering what to do, a fox suddenly appeared from deep within it. This took me completely by surprise, and as my rifle was still on my shoulder, it was four or five seconds before I was ready. By then, it had run off down the side of the field, heading straight away from me.

With no time to lose, I grabbed the BestFoxCall mouth caller from my pocket and gave a few quick blasts while simultaneously watching the landscape through the thermal. In moments, the fox was back – steaming in towards me at a hell of a pace. I let it get to about a hundred yards and when it stopped to sniff the air, I put a bullet in its chest. There was a good solid thump, and it was down on the spot. Checking that nothing else was in sight, I went over to retrieve the carcass. It was a massive vixen in superb condition – given her size, I’d have said she was a male if I hadn’t flipped her over.

Dragging her back to the track, I left her in a visible spot and returned to my previous calling point. Since the vixen on heat track had worked well earlier, I used it again. About five minutes later, I got a positive on a fox running up from the lower part of the woods. It came in fast, and once again it looped around to head away at about the same point. Like the others though, it took a bullet when it stopped to look over its shoulder. By then it was time to start heading off, so I used the thermal to find the corpses. They’d all fallen within a few yards of each other. All were very big, well fed animals, with the first and last being dogs, while the second was another big vixen.

Dragging the three of them together with my rifle, caller and sticks to the top of the hill nearly killed me. The sticky mud didn’t help, but it was the gradient that was the biggest problem. By the time I got to the track, the idea of then getting them back to the truck did not appeal, so instead I walked back and drove in. The tank trap was a bitch to navigate past, but somehow I got through without getting stuck. You’ve gotta love those mud terrain tyres! I unrolled a couple of bin liners, and put two foxes in each, before lifting them into the back of the truck. A quick circuit of the lanes saw me in the estate yard. There, I deposited my vulpine cargo and started off back up the hill towards home.

On the way, I remembered Bruce’s request to check the sheep field behind his house, so pulled up by the gateway. I left the engine running but killed the lights. A few steps saw me at the gate – the thermal revealed a white shape right in front of me. It was a large bunny. There was, however, another, smaller shape to its left. A quick scan with the NV spotter showed a big fox heading across the field, some two hundred yards out.

I dived back to the truck and turned the engine off, before pulling the rifle and sticks out. Back at the gate, I set them up and got the rifle on top mounted and ready. Another quick check with the thermal showed me two white shapes of approximately equal sizes. Jumping back to the NV riflescope, I found the one on the right was the bunny – but the one of the left was my fox. It had come in a bit closer, and was now sitting back on its haunches looking straight at me. Big mistake. A careful aim just below its head saw a shot released – this was answered by a satisfying thump, and the fox just fell over. Walking out to it, I could see I’d hit it right in the throat – just where I’d intended.

I dragged my fifth fox of the night back to the truck and as I was too tired to faff about with bin liners, I just threw it on the bonnet. I had to drive up the hill to find a turning point, then went back to the yard. I simply drove straight at the pile I’d left a few minutes earlier, and hit the brakes. My latest victim went sliding forwards and disappeared out of sight, landing next to the others. Reversing out, I headed back. Taking seven lamp-shy foxes in two nights was, I hoped, going to earn me a good number of Brownie points. Having had a serious amount of exercise, it didn’t take me long to drift off to sleep when I eventually hit the sack.

The next day (Tuesday) I was up bright and early, as I’d been invited to a informal pheasant shoot held by some farmers some twenty miles or so from my house. Now I make no secret of the fact that I can barely hit a barn door with a shotgun, but I go more for the crack than the killing. Since I’d had to include a detour to fill up with fuel on the way over, I wasn’t sure how long to allow for the journey.

As a result, I’d arrived about half an hour early to find Alan – the farmer who owns the shoot, tearing around his yard with a hedge-trimmer on the back of his tractor, desperately trying to tidy the place up. He’s recently got into night vision – hence how I got to know him, and we had a chat about this and other related matters as the area in front of the barn slowly filled with vehicles. The shoot is composed of various characters, ranging from contract tractor drivers to retired businessmen. Mostly though, they are local yokels – and a better bunch you could not hope to meet. In amongst all the boiler suits and wellies, however, was a young lady who looked as though she’d just stepped out of one of the posh hunting clothes adverts in the shooting magazines. A delightful sight for sore eyes, indeed.

Alan was keen for someone to man the places where the foxes usually ran out during the drives, so I immediately volunteered for that duty, pointing out that I have little interest in shooting (missing) anything in the air. On the first drive, I drove someone’s Mitsubishi pick-up from the yard over to the setting-off point with an unknown number of people on the back. That done, I headed back to my assigned position – on a long-abandoned dung-heap which overlooked a narrow ride along one edge of the big woods.

Not long after the dogs started into the far side of the cover, a fox cautiously appeared out in front of me, some fifty yards out. I’d loaded my Benelli M2 semi with two 3” magnum cartridges, each carrying 50 grams of number 4 shot. On top of that was a third bird shot round. I gave the fox all three, and it rolled over and disappeared into the bushes. I went down and had a look for it, but without any luck. As the dogs were due to come through in a few minutes, I decided to let them find it.

A couple of minutes later I spotted a brown animal at the other end of the ride. I crouched down when I realised it was a hare, as I didn’t want to spook it back towards the dogs. It gradually hopped in and out of the bushes until it was less than twenty feet away. At that point it finally spotted me, but as I kept still, it didn’t seem alarmed at what it saw. It sat back and studied me, then continued on its way and into the bushes off to my left. I think they’re lovely creatures, and really enjoy seeing them close up.

Three pheasants wheeled round out of the woods, one after the other in line astern. Unlike the stupid ones that squawked as they flew, alerting the whole world to their presence, these were completely silent. The real masters of covert flight, however, were the many woodcock that jinked their way out of the bushes and off to safety. While all this was going on there was a near constant barrage of shots from the other side of the woods. Every now and then a shower of spent shot cascaded down around me, sounding like rain as it landed.

As the drive moved closer, I jumped back in the truck and headed a few fields further down into the valley. There, as I approached one of the hedges, I spotted a roe doe on the other side furiously charging towards me across the white sheets of insulation fleece that were protecting the crops from the winter frosts. I got down on my knees to avoid frightening it, but it still spotted me, and instead of jumping over the hedge, it panicked and ran back towards the lane on the far side. Luckily, there was no traffic about.

Realising that I was in a bit of a blind spot, I made my way back along to the intersection of two fields and climbed up onto the hedge to get a better view of the goings-on. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that in this part of the world the fields are usually separated by what are known as ‘Devon banks’. These are substantial earthworks that are then covered in bushes, so that from a distance they look just like ordinary hedges. It was quite amusing to watch some of the higher pheasants fly from one end of the Gun line to the other completely unscathed, with shots ringing out all the while. I couldn’t have done any better though, so quietly kept my thoughts to myself.

The next drive saw me following a truck load of Guns in my Disco. This caused considerable merriment to them, as my bonnet was still adorned with substantial quantities of fox blood from the previous two night’s activities. I didn’t see any foxes for the rest of the day, however, although there were rumours that another two were spotted on the other side of the farm.

Having covered a lot of ground and trudged up and down some steep valleys, I arrived home rather weary. I wasn’t that concerned therefore to find the evening’s weather wasn’t suitable for foxing. The next day (Wednesday) it was no better but I still decided to try a calling session up on the stubble fields. Unfortunately, although the thermal still worked, there was so much mist in the air that I couldn’t see anything through either of the NV scopes. I discovered this when a fox ran in, but all I could see were dull reflections from its eyes. Even though I knew it was a fox, I wasn’t prepared to fire a shot, so I decided to pack up and go home. Interestingly, while I was loading everything back into the truck I heard the first fox mating call of the season.

The weather was awful on the Thursday, with thick fog, so there was no point in even venturing out. To my dismay, on the Friday it was even worse, with both thick fog and heavy rain. In fact it was so bad that my Good Lady and I nearly lost our way about a mile from the house on a road we’ve travelled on countless times before. There was one bright moment though – one of my regular shooting partners dropped by and he happened to mention that his wife had been at her badminton club. Apparently, Bob – the shoot captain I mentioned earlier, had been raving on about how this bloke called Paddy had been over to the estate and shot five foxes in one night!

November / December 2012

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