Twelfth Night – Part Two

The weather on the Saturday was a big improvement – with clear blue skies for much of the morning. There was very little wind though, and as the ground was still soaking wet there was a distinct likelihood that a mist would develop in the evening. I spent most of the day butchering a red deer hind that had been hanging in my chiller for a week, so as I’d also cut up some rabbits, a lamb, and fifteen pheasants the previous day I had lots of trimmings I could choose from as potential fox bait.

When Bruce had requested that I should revisit the stubble fields if I could, I checked that he was happy for me to use some bait there. The last thing I wanted to do was upset one of the farmers by leaving a slew of bones about the place without clearance.

I ate an early meal and then set out just after darkness fell. There are two basic routes to the estate. One goes through a series of tiny back lanes bordered by tall hedges, the other along a main road – at least what qualifies as one around here, and then down a narrow lane. I chose the latter, as it would put me close to the field where I intended to leave the bait. It also meant that there were fewer places where I might have to back up to let another vehicle by, which I hated doing in the dark as my reversing lights were rubbish (this has since been remedied with a pair of high level halogen spot lamps).

The journey over was nicely uneventful though, and I pulled into the parking spot less than ten minutes after setting out. As I rolled to a halt, I killed the lights and the ignition. Getting out as quietly as I could, I tiptoed over the road and had a quick look over the gate into the field with the thermal. There was nothing obvious, so I leaned over a bit further to look up to the far end. Bingo! There was a white shape that was darting back and forth just like a fox.

I rushed back to the truck – as quietly as I could, and pulled out the sticks and rifle. I got back and set myself up. Unfortunately, part of the hedge was in the way, so I had to reposition the tripod a bit closer to the gate. Now I had it in my sights – the fox was trotting towards me, but as the wind was blowing in my face, I wasn’t worried. I held back until it was about 85 yards out, and then when it stopped to sniff at something, I shot it in the chest. It flipped over with the impact and lay still. ‘Blimey’, I thought to myself, having shot a fox within about two minutes of arriving – ‘That’s not bad going!’.

The carcass – that of a medium sized vixen, was easy to find, so I wasted little time in retrieving it and throwing it in the back of the truck. Whilst there, I lifted out a sack of the bait and settled it on the ground. My hunting gloves were pulled off and replaced with a pair of latex disposable ones. As I was doing this, a bright patch in the sky suddenly cleared to reveal the moon. I hadn’t been expecting that, and in moments the glorious anonymity of the dark was wiped away. Damn – or words to that effect.

The bait – a mix of pheasant bits and rabbit bones, was carefully distributed on the far side of a rise, so that I could approach the area without being seen. Each time I took out a handful and threw it as far as I could. By doing this there would be no scent trail leading up to the tasty morsels. I hoped this would make them more enticing. That done, I retraced my steps and drove around to check out another patch where foxes had been seen during one of that day’s shoot drives. As I went to put the caller in my pocket though, the heavens opened. This just wasn’t on – coping with the bright moon was one thing, but getting soaked at the same time was simply not cricket. I jumped back in the driver’s seat to wait until the downpour eased off.

Bruce had mentioned earlier that he’d spoken to the farm worker who lived next to one of the internal access tracks, and had warned him that I’d be about. I thought it would therefore be a good idea to check the area out while I was expected. The track in question turned out to be more like a trials course in places with all manner of ditches and other obstacles to overcome.

Eventually, I made it to the far end, but when I saw the state of the field in front of me – a complete mud pit, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and parked up where I was. Like so much of the ground in this area, you could only see for about fifty yards at any given point. Having squelched my way across several hundred yards of quagmire, I bailed out and moved into the next field. This was still bad, but way better. I had about 85 yards that was relatively clear, and then after that there were a few clumps of reeds and then a wire fence. Beyond this, there were a couple of hundred yards of open field.

I placed the caller about ten yards short of the fence and then retired to my sticks. A quick check that I’d got the focus set where I wanted it and that the laser was clear of any dust spots, and I was good to go. I started out with the screaming rat call, and about two or three minutes later I heard a rapid splish, splash, splosh behind me. Yes, a damned fox had come running in from somewhere out in the wilderness that I’d just crossed – needless to say when it got to the spot where I’d walked it scented me and about turned and disappeared. Typical!

I tried switching to the grey squirrel distress call, but there was no sign of it returning. By then, however, I didn’t care, as I’d spotted another fox running in from the far side of the pasture in front of me. I tracked it in with the riflescope, and when it paused at about 125 yards, I shot it in the chest. It folded up right where it stood, so I knew there’d be no problems in finding it. When nothing else showed, I went and retrieved the carcass – that of a medium-sized vixen. I deposited both of that evening’s kills in the keeper’s yard and headed off home, pleased with my night’s work!

I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night as I like to go to the car boot sale in Exeter on a Sunday. Since it starts very early, I had to be up in good time – typically around 5:30 am. Unfortunately, I didn’t find very much of interest, but I did manage to pick up a set of Salter hanging scales for my chiller room. I was glad to pay the £15 asking price as they read up to 300 lbs. – the ones I had already only went to 200 lbs., and this isn’t enough as a red deer can easily be over 250 lbs.

It was still a happy event though, as not only did my Good Lady, Claire, come with me (a rare event due to the start time), my daughter, Gemma, also turned up with little Harry, my grandson, who was a mere eight-months old at the time. He was snugly tucked up in his pushchair, and Claire delightedly took over piloting it around the enormous boot sale site. His Dad – a Mountain Leader in the Royal Marines was away performing some of Her Majesty’s duties. Young Harry looks as though he’ll grow up to be a tough little chap though, so with luck he’ll turn out to be a keen hunter too, something I will do my best to foster… Having sated our desires for retail therapy and family chat, we called a halt to proceedings and headed off to our respective homes.

The late night and early start had taken their toll on me, so after doing a few vital jobs I grabbed a couple of hours of much-needed extra kip. I awoke to the wonderful smell of roast lamb – this was the product of some of the butchery work I mentioned earlier. I’d decided to do a special cut in honour of Claire’s daughter being back from university for a few days.

Being a penniless student, she really looks forward to being treated to proper home cooking. I’d therefore prepared a full saddle – this was about two feet long and nearly a foot high. It looked impressive before it was cooked, so I was keen to see how it would come out of the oven. When it did so, it was considered good enough to have a few photographs taken before we devoured it. It was a damn good job that we’d decided to eat mid-afternoon, as I could barely move afterwards. There was no way that I’d have been able to go foxing without a couple of hours to recover!

While I was waiting for my waistline to settle, I had another look at the map of the estate. Bruce had mentioned a track that would allow me to access the same area of moorland as I’d been on the night before, but from the other side. I was also keen to check the bait, so I decided to start on the moor and then drive round to see if anything was eating the bits of pheasant I’d left out. I memorised the route to get to the track, then loaded up and set off. I had two missions to run for Claire on the way though – firstly, I had to drop her daughter’s boyfriend off on the way, then I had call in to collect her weekly veggie box from a friend’s house. Luckily, I had to drive right past their door, so it wasn’t a hassle.

Following my memorised directions carefully, I found the track with no problems. Wallowing my way down it in the truck, I decided to avoid going onto the soft ground beyond and parked up where there was still a chance of getting out without assistance. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found I could still see a number of deep wheel tracks running up and across the marsh-like mud. Presumably, they’d been made by a tractor, but whatever it’d been, their depth told me that my decision was the right one.

Once I was fully kitted out, I had a quick scan around with the NV to see if I could see enough of the landscape to formulate a plan. Nope. I could barely see fifty yards due to the way the ground rose in front of me. There was nothing for it but to go on a bit of a wander. I quickly found that the area I was in was basically covered with thick reeds, and therefore no good at all for calling. I simply wouldn’t be able to see any approaching foxes in time.

Skirting around just inside the boundary hedge, I spooked something which ran out from the dense undergrowth. The sound made me stop to see if I could identify the source – luckily, it was only a bunny, and it was now sitting under a metal gate, its eyes reflecting strongly in the illumination from the laser.

Cautiously, I tiptoed over to look into the field on the other side. I was disappointed, however, to find that it was composed of an even bigger mass of tall reeds. Another no-go zone. I therefore continued to follow the hedge as it rose up the side of an incline until I reached another gate. I tried a calling session from there, but quickly came to the conclusion that I was in the wrong place, so I moved on.

The moorland on the other side was a lot more to my liking. There were still lots of reeds, but they were much more dispersed, and if a fox ran in, I should have plenty of warning. I soon had the caller set up about eighty yards out in a clear area just short of the reeds. I began my session with a series of fox squalls. There were two large rabbits grazing a few yards in from the far hedge, some two hundred yards away, but other than that the only heat signatures came from the roofs of a couple of farmhouses in the next valley.

Within a couple of minutes though, a new heat source appeared. It had come through the hedge and was now running towards the caller at great speed. I switched the thermal off and moved onto the riflescope. When the fox had closed to about fifty yards from the Foxpro, I hit the mute button. It still came on though, but when it got to the last clump of reeds, it stopped to see what was going on. This was my cue, and I put a bullet firmly into its chest. It flipped up in the air and fell behind some reeds and out of sight. I immediately went back to the thermal, but there was no sign of it. Now I had a problem – there were a couple of hundred clumps out there – so which one was it lying behind?

Although I would normally wait until my session was finished before retrieving any carcasses, I couldn’t be certain that I’d achieved a clean kill, so wanted to make sure straight away. And so began a long, long search. Every few paces a loudly protesting woodcock would rocket up from the reeds, a mere couple of feet away.

My recovery operation wasn’t helped by the fact that I started looking in the wrong place. I went back and forth for about three quarters of an hour, by which time I was beginning to think I must have imagined the whole episode. Just as the batteries on the thermal were giving up though, I caught a quick glimpse of what looked like a dead fox. It took a frustrating minute to change the battery, and then when I turned it back on, I found I was looking at the heat source from my caller. Damn!

I walked back a few steps and had another look. There, a few yards to one side of it was my dead fox. Phew! It was a large vixen with a gaping hole over its heart, so it was no surprise it’d dropped on the spot. There was no way that I was going to carry it all the way back across the moor though, so it stayed where it was. The area was well away from any public footpaths, so the only people who would see it would be the keeper and a couple of farm workers – and they could always move the carcass if they wanted it out of the way.

My trek back to the truck seemed to take ages, even though I only stopped a few times to scan around. There wasn’t any point in being too fastidious as the mass of reeds simply prevented me from seeing very far. Before setting off, I had a good check around with the torch so that I had a reasonable chance of extricating the Disco without it sinking. Happy that I’d worked out where the solid ground was, I executed a multi-point turn and drove back out onto nice hard tarmac.

I didn’t know the way from there to the bait spot, but followed my nose down the winding lanes, some of which looked as though they only saw a couple of vehicles a week. Eventually, I started climbing up a series of steep switchback bends – I was hopeful that at the top I’d find the field where I’d left the bait. Crawling past several gates, I struggled to work out which one led to the ground in question. It’s amazing how similar they all look in the dark! Eventually the hedges levelled out a bit, and almost straight away I spotted my parking spot.

Pulling in and dismounting as quietly as I could, I shouldered the rifle and tip-toed over to the gate. There was nothing to be seen from there – this was fine by me though, as I’d deliberately put the bait over the rise in order to reduce the chance of any vulpine visitors seeing my approach. The latch on the gate was open, so all I had to do was give it a gentle nudge, and it swung open silently. I knew from experience a couple of days previously that closing it would have to be done carefully, or it would clang loudly. This was avoided by placing my fingers up against the post as a soft stop.

From there, I only had to go about sixty yards to reach the bend in the hedge that marked the point where the ground dropped away to the bait zone. This was reached without incident, and almost immediately I saw the unmistakable white silhouette of a fox. It had its head down in the grass, so was almost certainly gobbling up the last of the pheasant remains.

With the sticks up, I got the reticle in place, then paused to relax – I wanted the shot to be a good one, and there was no hurry as my quarry hadn’t got the slightest clue that I was there. The hit was signalled by a resounding ‘whump’, and the large dog fox was down for good. I dragged him over to the next gateway and left him there for the keeper.

I headed back towards the truck, but decided to go past it and check out the view through a gap in the hedge. This had presumably been a gate at some stage, but instead now featured a section of thick wooden fencing. It was perfect for me though, as it looked out over one of the stubble fields that Bruce was so keen for me to check. It was the same one where I’d brought in a large vixen the previous Monday with the mouth caller. Creeping up to the timber barrier, I peeked over with the thermal – and immediately got a strong heat signal. From the size, I estimated that it was a fox about two hundred yards out.

Double-checking with the NV monocular, I got a bright reflection from a pair of eyes. But they were too far apart to be a fox unless it was quite close, and as the stubble was hiding the rest of it, I couldn’t tell what I was looking at or how far away it was. There was a chance that it was a roe deer, or even someone’s dog, so a shot was out of the question. I tried giving a few blasts on the mouth caller, but it didn’t move. Very strange – and because of the zero response, even less likely to be a Charlie.

At that point, I realised that I still had the Foxpro in my pocket, so I set it up on the fence, and tried a series of vole squeaks, as these are usually excellent at provoking a reaction. Again, nothing. Somewhat bemused, I decided to play a waiting game – the Sauer was up on the sticks and ready to go, so I held the thermal in my left hand, and the rifle in my right. About a minute after I started the vole sounds, the white shape stood up and started to move off to the left. As soon as it did this, any doubt was removed – it was a fox after all! Moments later there was a solid thud as my bullet hit home, and it fell out of sight in the stubble.

Although I was keen to go out and retrieve the carcass before I lost my mental note of where it was lying, I had a quick scan around with the thermal in case my shot had spooked any other foxes. As soon as the viewing screen finished booting up – this takes just under four seconds, I saw two large animals trotting towards me. They were the size of horses, and certainly looked like them, but this was a field of rough stubble, and definitely not suitable for grazing. Besides, all the gates were open, so it didn’t make sense for them to be equine. That could only mean that they were red deer – and if so, I needed to be careful as there was a road off to the right, and there was no way that I’d want them to panic and run out in front of a car.

Switching over to the NV spotter, I saw straight away that the bigger one of the two had long ‘spiker’ antlers – the other one appeared to be a hind. They were less than seventy yards away by then, so I expected them to suss me in seconds and disappear. I just stood motionless and waited. After a minute or so, they were still standing there looking at me looking at them. In an attempt to break the stalemate, I started making clucking sounds. That didn’t work, so I made some rabbit squealing noises. Nada. I banged my sticks on the ground. Still no response. I thumped them down really hard. That didn’t work either.

In the end I figured that it had gone on for long enough, so I pulled my Surefire torch out of my pocket and lit them up for a couple of seconds, then shone it back at myself, so they could see where and what I was. They didn’t move. Finally, I said in a loud voice ‘Oi – what the bloody hell have I got to do to make you go away?‘ (OK, it may have been a little ruder than that). But that was useless too. It was only when I started walking towards them that they got the hint and in a blink of an eye they’d disappeared over the brow of the hill and gone down into the depths of the valley below. It’s experiences like that which really enrich my night forays – where else could you come face to face with truly wild red deer out in the open?

On reflection, I came to the conclusion that the fox I’d just shot had almost certainly eaten its fill from the bait, and then wandered up to the field above to digest its meal. It had probably been lying out in the open because the all round visibility meant it was almost certainly the only place nearby where it felt safe. Luckily for me, it didn’t know about the perils of meeting someone armed with thermal imaging and night vision equipment!

November / December 2012

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