Lucky Sevens

6th June 2011

Having been out shooting six out of the previous seven evenings, I was wondering if my Good Lady might lose her sense of humour if I made it seven in a row. Fortunately, the fact that her daughter had just come back from university meant that what she really wanted was lots of girly chin-wagging, rather than putting up with me grumping around the place. Consequently, she was most understanding when I commented that I felt I should stay in to keep her company, but as the forecast said it was going to rain every other night for the rest of the week I’d better head out…

So, I rang the farmer with advance warning that I was going to appear and set off. I’d shot fifteen bunnies there two nights before, and had used the remains of the gutting process to bait a particular hedge line. Unfortunately, the heavens had opened with an unprecedented cloudburst before I could tempt any foxes in. While this was annoying to me, it was a disaster for the farmer as he was still desperately trying to get his hay baling done, having been delayed by some machinery that had gone wrong.

After sitting in the truck for a while, I’d realised that the rain wasn’t going to ease off for some time, so I slowly wended my way home. On reaching the tarmac lane that runs up to the main road, I was astonished to find that when I drove through the bigger puddles, the bow wave was coming up over the bonnet of my Land Rover. It had only been raining for less than half an hour! Two miles up the road I could see that barely a drop had fallen, and another five miles saw me driving through a bone dry landscape.

Anyway – fast forward a couple of nights and I returned for a fresh adventure. When I reached the start of the farm track I kept my eyes peeled for fox cubs – several had been seen in the vicinity, a couple of which had succumbed to the local traffic. A few yards further on, however, I could see that there was all manner of activity going on in the hay field. There were several tractors accompanied by various unknown people all hard at work.

I didn’t want to hold them up, but when I saw the farmer jump down from his John Deere, I stopped for a brief chat. Luckily, he was in a much happier mood – although his hay had taken a real drenching, two days of sun had dried it out enough to make it usable. He was clearly in a rush to get the job done, so I told him where I was planning to be shooting, and left him to it.

It was a really lovely evening, with the light shining brightly across the staggeringly beautiful landscape. Having been delayed by the niceties of the family meal, I was a bit later than I’d have liked, and there were only a couple of hours left before the sun slid below the horizon. I therefore had to make the most of the time available, and drove through the yard and on up to the chicken sheds where I quickly set about getting myself kitted out.

The farm is situated in an area that lies roughly between the Dartmoor National Park and the city of Exeter. The hills are relatively low, but in places they are very, very steep, with all manner of small goyles (mini valleys), streams, woods, copses and rough ground in between. It is a haven for wildlife, although having said that it is over-run by badgers, and so very little survives if it lives on or near the ground.

The fields in this part of Devon are mostly given over to a mix of sheep, cattle, hay, maize and cereals (barley, oats and wheat), and several of the farms – including the one I was on, also raise poultry. Indeed, this was why I’d been invited there in the first place – free range chickens, even when protected by electric fences, can take a real hammering from foxes. I’d been shooting over one of the neighbouring farms for about three months, and word had got out that I was a bit of a foxing specialist.

For some reason, however, I really struggled to get Charlie to come to the caller. I wondered if someone nearby had been using one and had educated them that the soundtracks indicated danger. In the end I came to the conclusion that this was improbable, and that the likeliest explanation was simply down to the time of year – very few foxes respond to calling in late spring. Whatever the reason, I’d had a lot more success by stalking them.

One of the small valleys overlooks a young plantation, and as the trees there are only about three feet high, the roe deer love it. Unsurprisingly, they have caused a lot of damage, and so I’d been asked to keep a close eye on the place. I’d shot a nice buck there two weeks before, but while I was gralloching it, a much bigger one came out and started barking at me – he moved behind some trees about two seconds before I was able to get the rifle on him.

I’d chosen to start my session with a bunny cull using the HMR. At the time both our dog and cat were fed on a diet of either venison offcuts or rabbit, so I liked to ensure we had enough in stock to keep them fed for a while. I locked the truck after grabbing my HMR – along with two 10-shot magazines, my shooting sticks and my Nikon HGL binos.

I used to keep them on a conventional neck strap, but they always swung about whenever I leant over, and usually managed to clang into any gates that I went near. I cured this with the purchase of a Butler Creek ‘Bino Caddy’, which is a most excellent harness that goes on in much the same way as a bikini top. While it holds the binos nicely up against your chest, it also allows them to come up to the eyes easily. Their main advantage, however, is that when you’re trying to crawl towards a target, your binos don’t go dragging in the dirt.

By the time I’d reached the first hedge, I’d got my face veil and camo gloves on, so I was ready to begin. I stepped carefully around the sticks and pebbles that littered the track and peered over the nearest gateway. This looks into a field that runs along the top of a very steep mini-gorge.

While the right hand side is covered with pine trees that are packed so tightly together that little light penetrates through, the left side is open grassland. In amongst this were several bunnies basking in the late evening sun. But at that moment they weren’t why I was there – for this vantage point also gave me an excellent view of the plantation where I was hoping to drop a roe at last light. For now the bunnies could relax – I didn’t want any shots to spook the deer.

As there were no deer in sight, I set off in the opposite direction. Before I’d gone more than 50 yards, a nicely-sized bunny went down to a blue-tip HMR round. Within half an hour another four were added to the pile. Since there were already more than twenty in my chiller, I decided it was time to get in position with the deer rifle. I therefore swapped the HMR for my .308 Sauer and climbed over the barbed wire fence onto the ground overlooking the plantation. This was flat for about twenty feet before plunging steeply down to a narrow stream. The side of the hill had been covered in gorse until very recently, but this had been burned off exposing a massive rabbit warren. There were frightened bunnies stamping their feet and running everywhere as I settled myself down.

With the naked eye all seemed quiet in amongst the plantation over on the opposite side of the valley – the nearest bits of which were about 120 yards away. The ground rises steeply from there to meet some thick woods which begin at around the 200 yard mark. During the day these provide a perfect environment for the roe to lie up in, and as the light fades, they slink out to feast upon the delicious saplings. The landowner has done his best to protect the young trees with plastic tubes, but the deer just eat the tops off instead.

A closer inspection with the binos, however, immediately revealed a badger sniffing about in the long grass. Moments later, he did what these animals seem to spend a lot of their time doing, and squatted for a good dump. A few feet away a bunny looked on – the poor thing was downwind, so no doubt it got a goodly whiff of the results… I couldn’t see anything else going on though, so checked the focus on the rifle’s Swaro scope, and made sure the bipod was fully extended so that I could take a shot at short notice if the need arose.

There was clearly a fox up to no good somewhere off to my right though – a number of magpies were kicking up an unholy stink (although in a different way from the aforementioned badger). At some 600 yards or more away though, they were too far off for me to be able to work out what was going on. I kept scanning the ground in front of me, and before long a lovely roe doe appeared from nowhere.

A few minutes later I heard the distinctive sound of antler on antler down by the stream. This area is so overgrown, however, that in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t see either of the two bucks battling away. A few minutes later the doe – which by now had moved to the far right end of the plantation, was joined by a buck, but once again they were too far out for a shot to be on the cards, so I just enjoyed watching them instead.

Somewhere up above me was a skylark, singing its little heart out. Surely this has to be one of the loveliest sounds of the English summer? As I lay there, I was hoping that the beautiful little bird would manage to raise its brood without Charlie or Brock finding them. Another scan across the plantation gave me a glimpse of movement in the long grass that grows rampantly along the edge of the far woods. A fox was weaving in and out of the tussocks with an air of business about it. ‘OK – Game on’, I said to myself, and moved behind the rifle.

The scope was already in focus and set to the maximum x15 magnification, so all I had to do was push the safety to off, and I was good to go. At that range, I estimated the aim point to be on the neck line, just behind the shoulders. I developed the 165 grain home loads I was using for red deer, but chose to use them on this farm as they are super accurate. I tracked the fox until it paused, and squeezed off a shot. The rifle jumped with the recoil, but when it settled again I couldn’t see any sign of the fox. I couldn’t tell if I’d missed it or not – it had simply disappeared.

Unsurprisingly, the sound of the shot spooked the deer, and they rushed off over the brow of the hill – a few minutes later they reappeared though. In the meantime, I was scanning the ground looking for any sign of the fox. I was not at all pleased when one came out of the bushes by the stream – ‘Damn, I thought to myself – ‘I was hoping I’d got the blighter’. To make matters worse, it wandered back into cover before I could get myself in position for a second try.

I waited for a few minutes, and got all excited when I saw a reddy-brown coloured animal emerge from the undergrowth, but it was just one of the roe deer coming out for a feed. By then, it was too dark to be sure whether it was a buck or a doe, so I climbed back over the fence and switched the .308 for my .22-250 NV rig (I have a gun cabinet mounted in the truck).

Before I could check the spot where I’d shot at the fox, my first job was to gut the bunnies. This done, I spread the remains in an area where they would work as bait, and set off down the hill and up the other side. The boundary between the two areas was treacherous, with mud banks, straggling brambles and all manner of other obstacles. I was therefore thankful when I reached the edge of the woods without breaking my neck. Once there, I worked my way along, searching the ground as I went.

Within a few feet I spotted a carcass hidden in the grass, so I reached for my little Surefire torch and switched it on – there in the pool of light was the fox I’d spent so long looking for and thought I’d missed. A quick check showed that the round had hit exactly where I’d intended it to go, so I was very pleased from an accuracy point of view. It was a vixen that had clearly had cubs in the last few months, although since it was no longer milky its brood would have been fully weaned. In other words, they would have been able to take solid food from other adult foxes in the social group.

I’d been collecting fox carcasses for FERA – an off-shoot of DEFRA, the government body that regulates and administers most aspects of UK agriculture, for some time. This was as part of their attempt to get the UK a Trichinella-free status. Trichinella is a parasitic nematode roundworm that infects pigs, amongst other things. Testing for it costs the UK economy millions of pounds a year – even though it doesn’t actually occur in Great Britain. The EU – in its wisdom, however, still insists that until we are able to prove this scientifically, we still have to have all pork products tested.

Since one of the indicator species – that is, animals that can be used to measure things like the incidence of disease, is the red fox (as it is one of the main carriers of the parasite), I had been doing my best to help by delivering dead ones to them. Due to the nature of the terrain, there was no way I was going to carry this one all the way up the abyss-like side of the valley though. Not only was it quite heavy for a vixen, but it was really stinky. It was therefore quickly consigned to the edge of the woods.

I began making my way back, scanning with the NV monocular every few feet. The number of badgers there has to be seen to be believed – seeing them coming out of the woods was like watching Albanian immigrants emerging from the Sangatte refugee camp on the northern French coast. One day, the so-called ‘experts’ will realise what a tragedy they have imposed on our wildlife by protecting what are effectively giant rats. Sadly, I suspect that it will be too late for many of our other species, such as hedgehogs, dormice, skylarks, and so on.

On reaching the fence line at the top of the hill, I scanned around the chicken sheds for any signs of Charlie, but there was nothing there. I skirted around until I could see over the field where I’d put the bait two nights before. As I checked it over, a bunny suddenly sat bolt upright a few yards away, its eye shining back at me like a torch in the reflection from my IR laser. To its right – and much further out, however, was a much brighter pair of eyes.

The fox they belonged to was sniffing around the bait zone to see if anything more had appeared. It hadn’t found the stuff I’d just put out though, but presumably could smell that it was in the area. Although I was downwind of it, I must have been skylined, as it was clearly spooked by something, and turned to leave – as it did so, however, it was hit by a round from my .22-250. A loud hydraulic pop told me that it was a good hit, and that it had gone down heavily.

On inspection, it proved to be another vixen, although it hadn’t been in milk any time recently. And so to the reason for the title ‘Lucky Sevens’ – this one meant that I’d got seven kills for seven shots on my seventh night out!

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