Three’s A Crowd

17th February 2012

What with one thing or another, I didn’t get myself organised to go out until after 7:00pm last night. My Good Lady had been constructing a massive paella, but it was clear that if I wanted to go shooting, I’d have to wait until I got back to sample it. Looking down the list of my permissions, I tried to select a location that would suit the wind’s direction. I also wanted to go somewhere that I could get to and from quickly – partly because my truck was low on fuel, and partly because I was hungry.

In the end, I went for a small farm that’s about three miles away. Due to its size and shape, it’s a place that only really works if the wind’s in the west (which it was) – if it’s coming from anywhere else, you can’t approach the main area without being scented.

The trip over only took a few minutes, but although I was parked up very quickly, I couldn’t leave the truck – Planet Rock radio was playing Deep Purple’s ‘Speed King’, and it’s against the law to switch it off part-way through. When the last chords had died away, I set about the night’s business.

Since I’d already pulled on my gloves and face veil as well as the mini-thermal and NV mono before I’d left the house, I was on my way in moments. With my rifle over my shoulder and sticks in hand, I began to wend my way past the barns towards the furthest gate. There was a gate right beside me, but instead if climbing over it I chose to walk over to another about a hundred yards away. The reason was very simple – a farm over on the other side of the valley – about a mile away, had its yard lights on. These were illuminating most of the field I was heading for, so in order to avoid being lit up by them, I had to skirt around via the shadows beneath the top hedge.

Halfway past the barn I suddenly encountered a white tape at waist height. As this was of the electric fence type, I was pleased that I hadn’t walked straight into it. I had a quick look with the mini-thermal to see why it was there. Straight away I saw that it was being used to corral a small pony. Now I don’t know much about horsey things – especially in the dark, so can’t say what breed it was – it appeared to be a sort of a cross between a Shetland and a Shire –small, but very powerfully built thus probably a Welsh cob or something similar.

Thinking no more of it, I took advantage of the fact that my sticks have foam handles, and used them to hold the tape down as I climbed over. I made some gentle clucking noises to reassure the pony as I walked on, but halfway to the other side, it suddenly went into stampede mode, and came charging towards me. Not wanting to spook it any further, I stood and spoke to it quietly. I also switched my small Surefire torch on, and held my other hand out, holding it low so that the pony didn’t feel threatened by it. After some snorting and stamping, it came a bit closer and then sniffed me. After a few seconds of checking me out, it relaxed and licked my hand gently in approval.

Moving on, the sticks once again assisted me in crossing the other side of the electric tape, and before long I was at the gate that leads into the main field. This is a large stretch of rough pasture which is roughly rectangular in shape and the best part of 600 yards from end to end. It has the farmhouse and associated buildings on one side, while on the other it falls away steeply to a small stream which is bordered by a thin line of ash, birch and oak trees.

Below these grows a dense scrub of hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel, all thickly entwined with brambles. Since it provides such an excellent combination of shelter, fresh water, food and protection, it is a favourite lying-up area for roe deer. Before scaling the gate, I gave the field a through going over with the thermal. There were several rabbits nearby, but nothing else of any note.

The environmental conditions were completely different from those I’d experienced the night before, when there was so much mizzle that the thermal struggled to see anything. Now, the air was completely clear, and anything with a pulse stood out clearly. I’d also made a few tweaks to the mini digital recorder that I’d rigged up to the thermal, so I was hoping to get some good footage. Every now and then I stopped to film the area around me.

At one point, I spotted something sitting in the middle of the field. It was too small to be a rabbit, but had a very bright heat signature, so was unlikely to be a bird. It then began darting about before bounding forwards at great speed. It looked distinctly rat-like through the NV mono, but it was too far out to be sure, so I had another check with the riflescope – since this has twice the magnification – x6 as opposed to x3, I was able to confirm that my identification was correct – Rattus norvegicus it was. A little further on, I spotted two small rodents in the thicket down by the stream, which was tinkling away merrily in the background. I can’t say exactly what they were, but my money would be on long-tailed field mice.

On the far side of the stream – about 800 yards or so away on the next farm, I could see there was a fairly large animal out in a meadow near some big woods. I don’t know what it was – the optics on my mini-thermal just weren’t designed for such distances. My guess would be that it was a roe deer. The next time I looked, it had gone, so I was unable to get a positive ID.

I eventually reached a point opposite the farmhouse, but by then the wind had moved around a bit, and was now blowing my scent into the nearby woods. There was clearly no point in trying to approach them directly, so I decided to give the caller a go instead. The first time I put it down, I quickly discovered that it was hidden from my chosen shooting point by a fall in the ground, so I retraced my steps and repositioned it a few yards to one side, where I could see it. I then found that I was being lit up by the lights from the farmhouse, so had to experiment a bit before finding a spot that put me in total shadow.

I thought it would be nice to get some footage of a fox coming in to the caller, so I switched the recorder on before starting the distressed rat call. After a couple of minutes with no response, I changed to a screaming bunny track. Then, all of a sudden, I realised that a fox had come out of the woods, and was getting very close to the caller. At this point, I had to switch off both the thermal and the recorder (because of all the light they were producing), get the rifle in position, switch the NV riflescope and laser on, get on target, then release the safety and get a shot off. All in less than a second – needless to say, I fouled it up terribly, and missed.

Cursing bitterly, I decided that the filming would have to wait, and consoled myself with the possibility that the fox might come back for another look. It’s happened before, so I calmed myself down and began scanning the edge of the woods with the thermal. About a minute later, a fox-like shape appeared – this time I was far better prepared, but in spite of it being a lot further away – some 150 yards out, I got a very solid ‘pop’ in answer to my shot. Brilliant – that was better!

Again, I decided to play a waiting game, so left the caller going, and settled down to see if anything else would show. It wasn’t long, however, before I got another heat signature down by the woods. A quick look through the riflescope showed me a set of fox eyes reflecting back strongly together with the characteristic vulpine body shape. A slight tweak of the focus adjuster gave me a nice clear image and I loosed off a round aimed between the fiery glows. A hard-edged crack suggested that I’d hit the skull, and my target fell out of sight.

Two foxes was good going, but I decided to hang on to see if any more would appear. There’s a very big commercial pheasant shoot immediately adjoining the land, and the keepers there normally do a very good job of predator control, so I wasn’t hopeful. It was with some surprise therefore, when another fox appeared – this time though it approached from directly upwind – the last place I’d expect it to come from. Unfortunately, this placed it well away from where my sticks were pointing – consequently, I wasn’t ready for it, and it sussed I was there before I could reposition myself.

One thing beyond all others matters when you’re foxing though – patience. As it had run off into the woods where the others had come from, I readied myself in case it went round on the wind to see what was going on, just as the other ones had done.

For once, the fact that I was so close to the farmhouse gave me an advantage. The foxes were clearly used to smelling humans there, and even though they were more or less directly downwind, they weren’t as spooked as they’d normally be. Sure enough, about five minutes later, I spotted it coming up the slope and into view. The moment it presented a safe shot, I whacked it – again, I got a good a solid ‘whop’, and it dropped like a stone.

When nothing else showed, I set off to retrieve the caller and then find the carcasses. The first one was easy – it showed up in the thermal straight away, so I set my sticks up next to it as a marker and went off to see if I could find the second one. It had fallen on the far side of the slope that led down into the woods though, so I had to search around for it.

Just as I was doing so, I heard a sound that just wasn’t right. Luckily, I stopped and switched my torch on to see what the score was. There – about a foot in front of me, I found a sheer twenty foot drop. The farmer had dug a quarry and left it unfenced. I’d unintentionally dislodged a pebble as I was walking forwards, and it was the sound of this hitting the ground far below me that had alerted me – another step and I’ve have plummeted to certain injury. ‘Good heavens’ (or words to that effect)!

Anyway – my examinations with the torch revealed that the second fox was lying at the bottom. I therefore found a safe route round and climbed down to inspect it – it turned out to be a medium-sized vixen. After taking some photos, I then climbed back up to see if the third fox was anywhere in sight – fortunately, it was lying a few yards further on from the first one, so I was able to reach it without risking life or limb. This time it was a large dog – from nose to tail it was nearly four feet long.

On examination, I discovered the first one was a very large and heavily pregnant vixen. I would imagine that together the three represented a breeding clan, and so my evening’s efforts were clearly very well worthwhile. I knew the farmer would be delighted, and hoped that he might even get to keep his poultry alive.

On the other hand I also knew that one of his neighbours would be less pleased – even though he’s a sheep farmer, he’s a keen supporter of the local hounds, and thinks that no-one should shoot foxes. I have to admit that I really struggle to understand how some people can be so selfish that they’re prepared to see others lose their livestock in the name of sport. It’s a strange old world…

Needless to say, knowing that the pony was there gave me good reason to take a different route back to the truck. With everything packed up and the rifle safely back in its case I set off for home, where the my Good Lady’s long-awaited paella proved to be absolutely delicious!

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