28th Feb. 2014 and 29th April 2014
One evening at the end of February I called a local sheep farmer to see if he wanted us to do a patrol around his land. As ever, he was delighted to hear from me, but as it transpired, he had an extra job for us as well. He’d taken on another farm and was due to put some young lambs out on the fields there. He was worried about the foxes in the locality, and that if control measures weren’t taken before they got there, his animals might suffer as a result.
Most people think that foxes are only a problem when the lambs are very young and that once they’ve grown sufficiently big that’s the end of the matter. Sadly, it is not. Firstly, the foxes will patrol through any fields where there are young livestock – be they sheep or cattle. They will seek out any opportunity for an easy meal. Perhaps there’s a dead or dying animal for the taking. It’s quite common for a lamb to stray a little too far and become separated from its mother – often they get trapped behind things like wire fences. They also produce dung that is heavy in milky by-products. This is a rich source of nutrients to hungry foxes, which will unsurprisingly scour the land looking for it. As far as the mother ewes are concerned, however, these foxes could turn at any moment and attack their babies, so they have to stay on guard all night. The lack of sleep and anxiety caused have a direct effect on the well-being of the animals concerned, and over time they lose condition. If it’s not managed early on, many of the ewes will succumb to sickness.
Another one of my friends – one of the most respected sheep farmers in the southwest, recently told me that my efforts in reducing the number of foxes in his area has led to the highest standard of mothering he has ever known. He said that when he visits them early in the morning, they are well spread out across the fields, relaxed, and at ease. This is in stark contrast to previous seasons when he’d find them all tightly bunched together and nervous as hell.
I therefore knew that we’d have to do our best to have a clear up before the sheep were moved onto the new farm. Paul – my shooting accomplice, and I therefore drove over one night. We had a choice – we could go to the left of the track, where there were nice open fields, or we could go off to the right, where the land was much hillier and the vision a lot more restricted. Since it was our first visit, we decided to start with the easy bit. Although we had excellent vistas across large areas of land, however, there was nothing obvious for the foxes to eat – since our Golden Mantra is ‘Go where the food is’, we knew that we’d be unlikely to see anything. And we were right – in spite of repeated calling in several different places – all of which looked like excellent fox terrain, we didn’t even catch a glimpse of one.
Backtracking, we returned to the truck where we had a second look at the maps. We’d not been there long before Paul spotted a fox nosing around in the middle of the next field. We hurriedly put the caller out, but it only came in as far as the gate, which was still some 200 yards away. Once there, it sat back and just looked in our direction. It’s entirely possible that it’d been downwind of us when we first arrived, or maybe it’d heard a caller before – whatever the reason was, it didn’t want to move. Not wanting to let the side down, I got my rifle really steady on the sticks, and when I was happy that my aim was good, I gently loosed off a round. A convincing thud at the other end coincided with the glare from its eyes disappearing and its body slumping to the ground; fox number one was down!
From there, we headed off towards the crop fields. These had been drilled, but the seeds were still only an inch or so high. We were hopeful that we were doing the right thing as we could hear sheep over the boundary on the next farm. Balanced against that was the fact that the terrain was very ‘up and down’, so you couldn’t see very far before encountering dead ground. A hot thermal signature at the end of the second field quickly revealed itself to be a roe doe, so we took care not to disturb her – not only do we like to avoid spooking the wildlife unnecessarily, but the last thing we needed was for her to go running off barking an alarm signal.
When we reached the third field, we discovered that it sloped down towards the boundary where the sheep were. By getting ourselves in below the top hedge we were able to hide our silhouettes, and yet we could still see most of the field below us. The caller was duly placed some fifty yards out, so that the wind would be blowing from our left to our right. I started by using vixen on heat call, and before long a fox appeared from our left. It was Paul’s turn to shoot, and moments after I paused the caller he dropped it with his .22-250, at a distance of about 80 yards. Almost immediately, I spotted a second fox on the brow of a rise about 150 yards away, down to our right – it had turned and was about to disappear into the shadows when my Kimber .204 stopped it in its tracks. Numbers two and three were down!
We let things quieten for a couple of minutes, and then started calling again, this time using the ‘screaming rat’ sound. About two minutes later, Paul hissed that a fox was coming in below us. I let it get near enough for a shot and hit the mute button. On cue, the fox stopped to see where the sound had gone. At that instant a shot rang out, followed by a loud ‘whomp’. Paul had taken number four. We called on and off for another quarter of an hour or so, but in spite of trying all sorts of different animal sounds, nothing appeared. By that stage it was getting quite late, so we set off in our respective directions to collect the carcasses. As mine was the furthest away, Paul had returned to the top of the hill long before me. I knew he was there because I heard another shot followed almost immediately by another thump. It turned out that a fifth fox had come to the right hand hedge and was peering into the field to see what was going on. Paul’s thermal imager had revealed it as a white heat signature, and his rifle did the rest.
So – the final tally was five foxes – mine were a dog and a vixen, while Paul’s were two dogs and a vixen. The farmer was absolutely delighted, and his sheep had a quiet time as a result. Having given it nearly two months, however, we decided that it was time for a second look around. We initially arranged to go over on a Monday night, but some rogue weather including a freak hailstorm soon put paid to that. The next night we tried again – the ground was very wet, and there was almost no breeze, so it was obvious that fog was a possibility. Nevertheless, we set off well before dark arriving on site with about forty five minutes of daylight left. We’d still only seen about a quarter of the land on the farm, so we thought the light would provide us with a good chance to have a look around.
Once again, we found that the land off to the left contained no livestock or anything else that looked like it might tempt a hungry predator. There was, however, a distinctly foxy looking stand of gorse off in the distance, near the stream that acted as part of the land boundary. Since cubs need both fresh water and protective cover, this would clearly be a good place to bring up a litter. We found that if we positioned ourselves beside a tree in the left hedge, it would disguise our profiles. The caller was placed downhill and to the right, about fifty yards away.
On this occasion it was Paul’s turn to shoot – in fact, he’d racked up two ‘credits’, as the last time we were out circumstances dictated that I was best-placed to shoot two foxes, even though it was his turn. The first was possibly the animal that had been killing ducks on a local farm, the other was certainly responsible for taking a number of free range organic chickens. As the light faded, and in spite of calling for ages, we saw nothing. With night fast approaching, we called in the ‘Go where the food is’ adage, and returned to the truck. Checking out the lie of the land on the rest of the farm would have to wait for another day.
When we reached the Land Rover it was more or less dark, so were hopeful that something – a fox or a wild boar (which are also in the area) might be moving about. I therefore climbed up onto the truck’s roof observation platform for a look around. This not only allowed me to see if any animals were visible with the thermal imager, but it also gave me a better understanding of the wind direction. Where you’ve got lots of hills and woods it’s easy to be deceived as to where it’s going since it tends to follow the immediate terrain, being temporarily diverted by any hedges, banks or other large objects that are in the way.
I couldn’t see anything from my vantage point though, so I climbed down and we made our way across the first field. This would have been ideal to call on, as the grass had been grazed by the sheep and was therefore very short, giving excellent visibility. Unfortunately, it was too far from the lambs we could hear off in the distance, and the wind was wrong. We therefore continued on, climbing over the gate into the next area – this was the first of several arable fields, and contained young barley about a foot long. Since a fox can hide in anything more than six or eight inches tall, the crops would clearly be an issue for us. The other problem was that as darkness fell, so the fog began building up. At first we just ignored it, but it became obvious very quickly that we would only have a short time before we wouldn’t be able to shoot.
The next field – which was also covered in foot-long barley, was the one where we’d previously shot four of the five foxes mentioned earlier. Given the short timeframe available, we had no choice but to do what we could where we were. I said to Paul that our only option was to go down close to the far hedge – just over from the lambs, and to place the caller close by it. Every few yards across the field there were pairs of tractor tyre tracks left over from the seed drilling. These were by far the easiest routes for foxes or humans to travel along, so we set ourselves up on one of these. Paul positioned the caller about thirty yards away in the middle of the tyre tracks and then put his sticks so that he was looking towards it. In order to cover as much area as possible, I faced in the opposite direction.
I started calling with the pheasant distress, and before long Paul could see that a fox was sitting watching us in the next field. I varied the volume and then tried a different track, but it still sat there without moving. Then suddenly, without warning, something tore past us in the cereals – it was so close that it sounded like a racehorse. It was, of course, a Charlie in full flight; it got to within about twenty yards of the caller before I managed to mute it. The moment I did so, our quarry came to a halted and sat back to see where the sound had gone, at which point Paul shot it.
Pleased that we’d managed to overcome the severe environmental difficulties, I then switched to the rat distress call. A minute or two later, the second fox was finally tempted out of the adjoining field for a closer look. When it got near it clearly couldn’t resist the sound of the good meal it believed was in the offing, for it rapidly increased its pace and came charging in. I was watching it with the thermal, and saw how it was leaping up and over the cereals in a series of bounds. When it was close enough I muted the caller, at which it stopped and sat up for a better look; Paul didn’t need a second chance, and a perfect shot saw it fall on the spot. We tried calling for a while longer, but the fog was by then getting so thick that we had little option but to call a halt to the proceedings.
The long corn gave us a bit of a task when it came to finding the second carcass. The first – a dog, was easy enough as it was lying in one of the tramlines. We knew roughly where the second one had fallen but the sea of green sward hid it from sight. When we eventually found her a minute or two later she proved to be a barren – but very large, vixen. Both were dragged to the corner of the field and left by a gate where the farmer could find and dispose of them. From there we quickly came to the conclusion that discretion was the better part of valour and used the torches to walk the last couple of hundred yards back to the truck.
Normally we’d have maintained our semi-covert status until the last minute, but as it was too foggy to shoot, there was little point in doing so. The drive home was truly awful as we could barely see the hedges, just inches to either side. Somewhat fortuitously I’d planned a route which took us over, rather than along the North Devon Link Road, which can be absolutely lethal in such conditions. After a rather unpleasant journey we made it back to the village – I dropped Paul off and gladly drove the last mile home. On entering the evening’s tally in my records, I could see that we’d shot 72 foxes since Jan 1st, which wasn’t bad for four months work, especially considering that we’d already cleared out most of the foxes in the area.