It Helps To Know Your Ground

15th July 2012

Since the weather had been dreadful, I’d been carefully watching the Met Office’s radar map, checking back every few hours in case things looked positive. By early evening, I could see that there would be a window of opportunity at last light for an hour or so. The wind was going to be in the west, so I had a careful think about where I could use this to my advantage. One place in particular sprang to mind as I knew of at least two foxes over there that I hadn’t yet caught up with. The farm in question had been the scene of many previous successful sessions, so I tried calling the owner. After several attempts over the space of a couple of hours were all met with the engaged tone, however, I realised that someone must have left the ‘phone off the hook. So – where else to go?

I also shoot on the adjoining farm which lies over the hill, but as I’d done a pretty good job of keeping the foxes down there, I wasn’t hopeful of getting a result. Still – I couldn’t afford to hang around any longer, so tried calling there instead. This time I got an answer, and after the usual opening chat, the farmer said he’d not seen anything about. I was, however, welcome to go over and have a look around. He’s keen on me patrolling his land regularly as he keeps a lot of sheep – before I took on the fox control he’d lost an awful lot of lambs, hence why I was always welcome.

My plan was to start out in daylight and take the .204 over to lie up on some ground that looked over several fields that make up a small valley. Previous experience had shown me that foxes love to use it as an access route to get onto the farm from some rough ground which stretches away down towards a small river. It would also give me a good opportunity to see if there were any roe deer about. The big pine woods just beyond the farm had been undergoing an enormous amount of logging work, and I wanted to see if any deer had stuck around after so many of the trees had been removed.

A few minutes later, I’d loaded up my gear and was on my way. As I drove down the narrow lanes that typify this part of the world, I thought about what lay ahead. I was especially keen to see if the silage had been cut – if it had, I knew I’d have a much better chance of seeing what was about. Parking up in my usual spot in the farmyard, I had a quick scout around to see where the cattle were. Satisfied that my choice of vantage point was the best option, I packed my NV add-on, NV mono and Foxpro caller into a camo bag, pulled my face veil and gloves on, then headed off with the .204 over my shoulder and my tripod sticks in hand.

At the first gateway, I stopped to look back over the hilly ground behind me – the sun had made a rare appearance and was now sitting low in the sky. I took a few minutes to scan all the hedges and bits of cover where I thought there might be something to be seen. While I was doing so, a brown animal came out of a hedge and made its way into a field. It was a long way out though, so I couldn’t identify it. A quick dab of the rangefinding button on the Leicas told me that was over 1,300 yards away, so I had another look through the riflescope (which was still unloaded at this stage). The Swaro’s x18 magnification immediately allowed me to see that I was looking at a roe deer. It disappeared into dead ground before I could determine whether it was a buck or a doe though. Still – I knew it was there, so I could always come back another night with the .308 for a closer look.

For now though, it was back to the immediate task. It was nice to see that the ground around the gateway was packed with ox eye daisies – these came up to my knees, and formed a dense cover that must have been a haven to a myriad of small creatures. Out on the field beyond, a couple of rabbits tried to pretend that they weren’t there, squashing themselves down into the low weeds. After a few seconds though, both lost their bottle and went scampering off into the hedge. In spite of the fact that I needed some bunnies to feed the dog, I was far more interested in the area beyond them. For it was immediately obvious from the colour of the grass that it had been recently cut – just what I wanted to see!

I cautiously moved forwards hugging the hedge and had a thorough check with the binoculars – not only did I want to see how much ground had been mown, but I also wanted to ensure that there were no cattle close by. The last thing I needed was inquisitive cows getting in my way, especially after the light had gone. For once, Lady Luck was with me, and all was clear. With no foxes in sight either, I back-tracked and skirted around the edge of the field to the other side, using a combination of a rise in the ground to my left and the tall hedge to my right to hide my silhouette. I was surprised to find that a large area had been left uncut – presumably because of all the rain. This was good news, as it meant I’d be able to sit a bit further out into the field without being seen. I settled myself in under a tree, adjusting my sticks for the steep angle as well as my seated position, getting them so that they’d be just right for shooting across the valley. I guessed there was probably still about three-quarters of an hour of daylight left, so I began the slow job of glassing every lump, bump, hedge and thicket.

It’s amazing just how much a vista can alter as the sun slides towards the horizon. Objects that you’ve barely noticed before can become prominent features in seconds as their shadows harden or they get caught in the light. It can certainly make for some rapid changes in pulse rate when you suddenly see something that wasn’t there a few moments before. Although the Leicas are really good, my mini thermal imager can be really useful at spotting animals that would otherwise remain unseen in the depths of the undergrowth. You can’t always tell what you’re looking at as all you get is a white splodge, but at least you know where to look. The combination of conventional and infra red optics makes for a devastatingly efficient operation.

Apart from a few bunnies though, there wasn’t much about. A couple of magpies started giving strident alarm calls for a while, but they were out of sight, back near the gate with all the daisies. I have no idea what they were shouting at – maybe I’ll find the cause another night. As the light gave way to darkness, I fitted the NV add-on and swapped the binos for the NV mono. About a quarter of an hour later, while using the thermal, I could see that a white shape had appeared out in the field to my left. Was it a fox or a badger though? It was some way out, so I used the NV mono in the hope that I’d get a flash of eyes. Sure enough, I could see for certain that it was a fox. Game on!

Every now and then it jumped up in the air and snatched at something. It was obviously catching insects – presumably, they were either daddy long-legs or moths. Perhaps both, as there were lots about. The fox was moving fast though, and every time I got the reticle on it, it ran further up the hill. It clearly didn’t know that I was there, however – in spite of the fact that I’d switched the laser on, as it ran straight towards me several times. Just as it looked as though it was going to reach the top of the hill and disappear out of sight, it stopped momentarily, looking towards the brow, with its tail pointing straight out behind it. A gentle squeeze of the Kimber’s trigger, and there was a resounding ‘thwack’. It fell behind the long grass – the last I saw was its head going down as though it’d been poleaxed. This was not the time to go over and pick it up though – that could wait.

A few minutes later, I spotted another fox-like shape in the field below. Before I could get a positive ID though, it headed into the hedge straight towards me. I knew I’d only got a few seconds before it would be in view again, but I also knew that because of the steep gradient, I’d need the sticks to be set at full height if I was going to be able to get a shot in. I stood up and had another look – Damn! It was already in my field. I did my best to unlock the legs and slide the sections out as quietly as I could, but there’s precious little you can do to avoid the metal on metal noises. Then I had to find a position where they’d stand without falling over. That done, I got the rifle up and had another scan with the thermal. Nothing. Damn! I must have spooked it… A few seconds later, however, it reappeared out of the long grass. Again – like the previous one, it was snatching at flying insects. I waited until it turned sideways on and sent a V-Max on its way. The fox went down without a twitch, like a sack of spuds.

As nothing else showed for a few minutes, I decided to try the caller. Before doing so, however, I thought it would be a good time to look for the first one I’d shot. I figured it’d fallen just where the long grass gave way to the stuff which had been cut, but could I find it? Even with the thermal, there was no sign of it. I knew from the sound of the hit that it wasn’t lying anywhere wounded – it was definitely as dead as a dead thing. No matter what many people who’ve never used one think about thermal imagers, they cannot see through wet vegetation, and I came to the conclusion that my prey must have fallen in amongst all the long grass and tall dock plants. After several minutes of fruitless searching, I decided to wait and have another look later using the torch. Scanning across the valley, I spotted two white forms that could well have been foxes – they were too big to be bunnies, too small to be roe deer.

By now it was really dark – there was no moon and the sky was covered with black rain clouds. I moved down the field to the edge of the long grass and set myself up. The Foxpro was positioned 85 paces out, with the wind blowing towards the rough ground below me. I had another quick look around, and satisfied myself that all was ready. I started with vole squeaks, as I suspected that I was likely to be dealing with sub-adults. From what I’d seen they were too big to be classed as cubs, and previous experience has shown these sounds to be very attractive to young foxes. One of them must have been very close by though, for within seconds, there was an unmistakable white shape charging in. I had the NV on in moments, but I couldn’t find the fox. That’s the main reason why dedicated NV scopes are so much better than add-ons – they have a much larger field of view. Luckily, I’d not turned the thermal off, so was able to have a quick peek with it.

I saw immediately that the reason I couldn’t see the fox was that it had come a long way in towards me. Back on the rifle in milliseconds, I got the reticle lined up – but my target was very nervous, rushing back and forth. It had come in so close to me that it knew I was there – I could tell by the way it kept glancing at me, but clearly didn’t know what I was. It was obviously keen to get to grips with the caller though, and was desperately trying to get a scent of it. For a fleeting second it stopped and looked directly at where the sound was coming from. That was my cue, and my third fox of the night fell with another resounding thump. At some 4,000 feet per second, those little 32 grain bullets hit really hard!

The raindrops had been spitting and spotting for a few minutes, but more or less since I’d pulled the trigger, the rain had started to get heavier and heavier. As it was obviously only going to get worse, I decided to call it a night. Both foxes were sub-adults, with the first I found being a male. The second was in such a state that I couldn’t tell what sex it was – the exit wound had obliterated everything between the stomach and tail. I picked them both up and placed their carcasses where they could be found for retrieval in daylight. So – where was the first one I’d taken down? By now it was raining so hard that I no longer cared about revealing my presence, so I whipped the Surefire torch out and began rigorously searching for it. No matter how hard I tried though, there was no sign of it.

Thinking very carefully back to the shot, I remembered that I’d had trouble getting a stable aim point. Also, I recollected that the impact sound had taken a while to reach me. I was clearly looking in the wrong place – it had been much further out than I’d realised. A quick look over to the likely area with the thermal revealed a white shape lying there. Thank God for that – now all three had been accounted for! It was a male, and more or less the same size as the other two. So – from low expectations, both because of the narrow weather window and the change of location, I was very happy with taking three in a row. It certainly helped that I knew the likely travel routes of any marauding foxes. I also knew that farmer would be delighted, so all in all, it was an excellent night’s work!

 

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