My mission remit was simple – to find and shoot as many foxes as possible. The grounds I was on form a prestigious game shoot, and in spite of the keeper doing his best, the pheasants were still being hammered by foxes. The area is very difficult to lamp successfully due both to the hilly nature of the terrain and the amount of cover. To make things worse, it wasn’t long before the vulpine population also began to run at the first glimmer of a light. He was a bit sceptical about my NV hunting methods at first, but soon became an enthusiastic convert after I left a big pile of dead foxes in his yard. I’d only been shooting there for a few weeks, so was still getting to understand where the boundaries and access points were. I was therefore pleased to find that one patch I’d heard foxes calling on – but thought was out of bounds, was actually part of the estate.
The nearby ‘main’ road – in reality a small B road which only sees a vehicle every five minutes or so, runs between two villages. Off this there is a much smaller side road where the estate starts. This leads off at ninety degrees, and although it’s flat for the first few hundred yards, it soon begins a steep and twisty descent into a heavily wooded Tolkeinesque valley where the oaks are gnarled and twisted in a most primeval manner. The bottom of this area is so thickly packed with trees that it rarely sees full daylight, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see why myths and legends grew up around such places.
The area to the right of the road is comprised of a series of large stubble fields. These are popular with red deer, rabbits, foxes, and all manner of small birds including woodcock and snipe. There are all manner of others too – probably including skylarks, but these are next to impossible to identify in the dark.
On the other side of the road is a much more diverse patchwork of fields and partially hidden woods. The first open expanse is made up of rough grassland that’s known locally as a moor. Heading down towards the valley, one meets a classic ‘Devon hedge’ (a thick bank of earth and rocks topped off with dense vegetation) – beyond this there are three lush and relatively sheltered fields which are usually home to a large flock of sheep. On two sides of these meadows is an L-shaped wood, which at the far side then runs into a forested area that winds in and out of various valleys for untold miles. You’d be a brave man to venture into the neighbouring cover in daylight – the ground in there is not only extremely boggy, but it’s also very steep, split by numerous mini ravines, and thick with fallen trees. Attempting to navigate through it at night would be suicidal. There are the remains of an Iron Age fort below the stubble fields, and I was fortunate enough to find a flint Neolithinc hand scraper nearby, so the area clearly has ancient origins.
My foray on the night in question was the third of three sessions on the ground – these were spread out over a period of ten days. On the first night I used the caller and brought in two vixens and a dog fox. Their carcasses were disposed of in the hedge, as per my instructions. When I went back six days later, I found that the remains of the two vixens had been dragged out and eaten – nothing unusual there, but I was surprised to see that the dog fox hadn’t been touched. Presumably he was too stinky. Before leaving the field, I called in and shot another big dog fox – then, as I was climbing over the gate to head off towards another individual that was calling, I spotted another. This one, however, was moving very fast, and by the time I’d got the rifle up on the sticks, it’d disappeared from sight. Since it’d gone downwind of me, I didn’t bother to try and go after it.
I then picked my way across the moor and set the caller out by a tall bank which marked the estate’s outer boundary. Not long after I started the electronics going an absolutely enormous dog fox came in – before he’d even cleared the hedge, he’d fallen to my .22-250. He would have been a good specimen to have had stuffed and mounted, but I decided this could wait for another occasion. Making my way back to the truck I spotted a set of eyes that almost certainly belonged to the fast-moving fox. Once again, however, they were downwind of me, and as they were high up on the top of a hedge, there was no chance of a shot. I tried the caller again, but it wasn’t at all interested. A few moments after I’d picked the caller up, the heavens opened, so I called it a night and went home. Now that I knew the fox was there, its days were numbered.
My third trip over was slotted into what I hoped was going to be a brief window in the weather. It’d been raining all day, and the Met Office had issued several severe weather warnings. Many of the region’s roads were closed due to flooding, and we’d experienced a lot of fog over the preceding days. The online radar map showed that there was the chance of a break in the clouds though, so rather than be trapped indoors for another night – the storms had forced me to stay in for four of the previous seven nights, I loaded up and headed out.
Turning off the main road, I stopped about a hundred yards further on and climbed up onto my Land Rover Discovery’s rear step in order to look out over the hedges to see if anything was about. Almost immediately, I picked up a heat source in the thermal imager’s viewer. It looked too small to be of interest, but all the same I double-checked with the NV spotter. I was a little surprised to find a bright set of eyes looking straight back at me. Instead of seeing the rabbit that I was expecting, it was, indeed, a fox – but much further out than I had first thought. It was obviously aware that I was there – this wasn’t surprising as I’d left the engine running, so I jumped down and killed the ignition.
At that moment a couple of cars drove along the main road – this conveniently masked the noise of me opening and closing the doors. I hurried around with the tripod sticks, but the ground in the gateway was very uneven, and I had trouble getting them to stand properly. I eventually got the rifle lined up, but somehow screwed the shot up. Whether the fox moved at the last moment or whether I simply missed, I can’t say. In my defence it was the best part of two hundred yards away, so it wouldn’t have taken much to ruin the aim. Anyway – it immediately took off like a scalded cat, and ran off over the brow of the hill towards where I’d previously seen the partially-eaten carcasses of its brethren. To say I was annoyed would be an understatement, however, I’m old enough to know that you can’t get it right every time.
I climbed back into the truck and drove along to where the terrain begins to fall away into the valley. At this point the road turns sharply to the right, and where it does this the verge is wide enough to park up safely. The weather was awful, with a strong westerly wind and black rain clouds racing across the sky. Behind these the moon was lurking, threatening to light the world up at a moment’s notice. The rain had stopped for now, but it was obvious that it could return without warning. I could hear that the normally placid streams below were now flowing in full spate. Louder than this, however, were the bleats of the sheep which clearly thought that the sound of my engine heralded someone coming in to feed them.
I slipped the FOXPRO Scorpion caller and its remote into my pocket, slung the rifle over my shoulder, and then locked the truck. With my sticks in my right hand, I was off. I chose to avoid the first field as the sheep were all huddled up near the gate. There was little doubt that if I tried to go anywhere near them they’d spook and run about the place in a frenzy of panic. If that happened, it would tell any nearby foxes that I was there. Instead, I went back up to the entrance to the big moor field. I was pleased to see that the gate had been left open. I hate climbing over the things in the dark, especially as most of them are half-rusted away and liable to collapse without warning. Trying to open them quietly is usually an exercise in futility. I was less happy about having to find my way through the quagmire, but somehow managed to make my way across onto firm ground without sinking.
The conditions were about as bad as they could be for night vision hunting – any worse and I’d have had to abort and head off home. I was determined to do what I could though – I consoled myself with the thought that keeping on when the going gets tough is what separates the men from the boys! It’s also good to reinforce the discipline that’s required to keep everything working properly in such horrible weather. When all the lenses are wringing wet you obviously can’t see anything through them, so you need very good drills to keep them as free of water as you can. Likewise, you need to be able to dry them off at short notice – and this means having several lens cloths stashed about you. In turn that also means knowing where they are, and what you have to navigate around to get at them. It’s no good pulling a lens cloth out if everything else in the pocket gets liberally distributed into the thick mud at your feet. Ask me how I know…
Before going any further I stopped to scan the area. Almost straight away I found myself looking at several woodcock, and beyond them partially hidden by the reeds was a group of about ten snipe, their eyes glowing brightly in the light reflected from the spotter’s IR illuminator. I tried to steer around them, but without success – in moments the air was riven by their shrieking protests. I tried to make some progress, but was only too conscious that the fox I was looking for could appear from anywhere – consequently, I had to keep stopping and checking every few paces.
I was also concerned that my quarry had now seen the laser several times, so I kept its use to an absolute minimum by using the thermal whenever possible. Its performance wasn’t helped by the amount of moisture in the air though – although it wasn’t raining as such, it wasn’t far off it. Anything exposed was soon soaked through. This made the view through the thermal extremely indistinct – in fact, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if someone unused to such equipment couldn’t see anything at all. I was certainly struggling, and I use it almost every day of the year.
After a couple of hundred yards I reached a gate that led back into the sheep fields. The nearest one was where I’d shot four of the five foxes over the two previous sessions, so I decided that it’d make sense to check it out. There was always the chance that my intended quarry was back feeding on the remaining corpses, so I identified which end the gate was hinged on, and began climbing over. Much to my annoyance, the upper pivot made a load creaking sound as soon as my weight was imposed on it. I managed to finish scaling it without incident, and with terra firma regained, I scanned along the hedge-line to my left – but there was nothing there.
My difficulty now was working out where to place the caller. I had the open field before me, another below that, and woods over on the far side. I needed three things – the wind in my favour, good visibility of the ground, and a way of getting the caller in place without leaving a scent trail that would compromise me. It was the last issue that was causing me difficulty, as I didn’t know where the fox was, and therefore which direction it would approach from. I decided that I should get a bit closer to the trees to see if there was a position that might work with the caller. I’d only got halfway, however, when a quick scan with the NV spotter gave me strong eye shine in the next field. The fox – which was moving very quickly appeared to be going off to my right, so I gained another twenty five yards or so and hurriedly set the sticks up.
On getting the riflescope in action I was frustrated to find that for some reason my adversary had changed its mind and had looped around towards me. Unfortunately, this placed it just beyond a rise in the ground where an ancient trackway ran. Every now and then I got a glimpse of a heat signature as it headed from my right off to my left, towards the woods. And that was it – gone. The only thing I could think of was to get to the field on the far side of the cover and use the caller to try and lure it out. And so that’s what I did. The gateway between the two areas was a bit of a challenge though – there was what looked like a small river flowing down the hill across it, but by carefully prodding the ground with my sticks I managed to establish that the bit in the middle was only a couple of inches deep.
Since there was a risk of being exposed by the moon, I put the caller about eighty yards out and then hid myself under a hedge. I wasn’t particularly happy with the set up, as the ground behind the FoxPro dropped out of sight, and I normally like to see further than this – but at least the woods where I’d last seen the fox were directly downwind. It wasn’t to be though – no matter what call track I used, I got no response. In the end another shower persuaded me that I’d given it long enough, so I collected the caller and began the haul back to the truck. I chose a route that would allow me to check the field where I’d last seen the fox, but there was nothing to see other than a dismal flock of wet sheep.
Cutting back up towards the moor, I stopped for a last look back with the NV mono – and immediately got a strong reflection from a set of fox eyes. I abandoned any thoughts of a nice dry truck and began to backtrack. I got to the wire fence that bisected the two fields, but my quarry was nowhere to be seen. I was determined to persist though, and waited to see if it would reveal itself again. After a few minutes I spotted an eye, quite high up in the air above the line of fence poles. It was about the right height to be an owl sitting on a post, but I wasn’t convinced. The thermal wasn’t picking up a heat source, for a start.
It had to be something further away, in the woods. Since the fox I was after seemed to like using high points to observe from – I’d seen it watching the world from the top of a hedge on the previous visit, I was wary not to dismiss its position out of hand. I switched back to the thermal, and kept looking. I then got a glimpse of something hot in the woods, and before I knew it a white fox shape appeared from the undergrowth and trotted straight out into the field. It must have been sitting up on a fallen tree trunk or something similar. Next time I’m there I’ll have a look to see what it was.
I was back on the riflescope in milliseconds, but it’d disappeared again. Luckily, I’d left the thermal running, so I raised it to my eyes and found that my adversary had come through into the field I was in, and was heading in my direction. This time I picked it up straightaway with the NV, and a quick fiddle with the focus gave me a nice crisp picture. I didn’t turn the laser on – I didn’t need to as I really only use it to show ground shadows and pick up eye shine. The fox was living up to its previous character, for it was moving at speed again. I tracked it with the reticle, waiting for it to pause – but it just kept coming. I was now getting worried that it’d reach me before I could get a shot in. I tried a squeak, but it didn’t even break step.
At one stage it altered its track very slightly so that it was now moving exactly towards me – luckily that meant its chest provided a reliable aim point. Holding slightly high to allow for the scope height at such close range, I gently squeezed the trigger and there was an immediate ‘pop’. It went down like a sack of spuds. I counted sixty paces as I walked over – once there I could see why it’d gone down so convincingly. My Gameking hollow-point had hit it centre chest from the front and exited just behind its shoulder-blades, removing an apple-sized piece of flesh. It was, as suspected by the brightness of its eyes and fast-moving manner, a dog fox – and probably a couple of years old, certainly not one of the current year’s cubs.
I normally leave the carcasses somewhere prominent for disposal, but the keeper’s instructions on this ground were that I should dispose of any dead animals in the thickest hedge I could find. I’m careful to avoid doing this near public footpaths though, since the last thing we want is for any walkers to make any complaints. Having done this I squelched my way back to the Land Rover and headed home for a well-earned rest!