Keeper’s Call

May 2013

One of the gamekeepers I look after typically gives me a call about once a week, asking if I would be able to go over and sort out one or more foxes that he hasn’t been able to deal with via the lamp. Since the land covers over 5,500 acres, most of which is composed of steep valleys interspersed with thick expanses of woodland, thicket or scrub, there are always foxes lurking somewhere. On this occasion, there were two issues to sort out. The first was the sighting by one of the estate’s farmers of a fully-grown cub near his house. We’d shot two foxes nearby, but we’d seen another, so doubtless there was a complete litter to be found. While this was something that had to be dealt with, it was not urgent. Far more pressing was the other sighting – this time of some cubs very close to one of the pheasant rearing pens.

The keeper had seen them whilst out lamping – two sets of small vulpine eyes deep in the gorse at the top of a very steep bank. There was no way that he’d be able to get close to them as the only decent line of sight was from the other side of the valley, and that was over two hundred yards away. That would have been futile as one flash of the lamp would have had the parents calling the cubs into cover and he’d have to work really hard to see them again. Consequently, he knew that the best solution would be for me to take my high-tech kit over.

My accomplice, Paul, and I had to wait a couple of nights as the weather was dreadful, but the forecast for the third evening was excellent, so we arranged to go over with enough daylight left to have a thorough poke around. Many people think that there are some special secrets to successful foxing, but while it is true that thermal imagers and night vision systems will give you an edge, there is no magic. At the end of the day, you have to do your homework or you’ll waste a lot of time. Where unknown territory is concerned, this involves studying maps and spending as much time on the ground as possible to gain as full an understanding of the terrain as you can.

Even when you know the area, you still need to find out where the animals are. Paul and I therefore spent a nearly an hour leaning on a steel gate high up on a hill while we scanned the ground before us. It was one of those late spring evenings bathed in brilliant sunshine that really make you feel good to be alive. It was as though the world was doing its best to throw off the mantle of what they say was the coldest spring in fifty years. The leaves on the trees were that lush vibrant green which just looks impossible in photos – you have to be there in person to take it in properly. It wasn’t just the foliage – the hawthorn trees, for example, were in full bloom – some in white, others in pink. Below them wild garlic – ‘ramsons’ in the Devonian dialect, were festooned with white flowers, clustered in small clumps. And all around the birds – blackbirds, thrushes, finches and skylarks, were singing away happily.

As soon as we started our observation we spotted several rabbits nibbling away by a hedge some 600 yards out – that much was expected, however, we were a bit surprised when they were joined a minute or two later by another that was jet black. I see these melanic variations in a few places here and there, but it was the first time I’d seen one on this estate. Further out, the sun caught some red fur partly hidden by long grass. At first I thought it might be a fox, but then when the creature ambled forwards, I could see that it was a roe doe. She munched a few leaves nervously, then scrambled over a bank and ran to my left, out onto a freshly-mown silage field. About a third of the way across, she stopped and carefully checked all round before continuing on her way. When she reached the other side, she quickly disappeared into some woodland.

Moving my gaze back to the right, I spotted a darker shape coming up out of a goyle (steep narrow valley). This eventually revealed itself to be a red hind – as she seemed to be grazing contentedly I figured that it was unlikely that she’d spotted any predators, so I didn’t watch her for long. Nearly a kilometre off to my left there was a field of some kind of cereal. The hedge on the far side was partly hidden by a slight rise in the ground, but all the same something caught my eye. I’d seen movement, and so kept my attention on the area. A few moments later, my suspicions were confirmed when a fox came out from behind the low knoll. It was running down towards the woods that the roe had gone into. At that range I couldn’t be sure whether it was a dog or a vixen, but it was certainly an adult, so in all likelihood, there were cubs somewhere close.

Paul and I kept the area under surveillance right up until we left some half an hour later, but we didn’t see it again. Elsewhere there were various sheep and cattle about – while I was watching a nearby field, I noticed that the bullocks had suddenly started running across the field in a concentrated group. I muttered ‘I wonder what spooked them?’, and focused my binoculars on the area to see what was amiss. I was somewhat taken aback to see a lamb right in the middle of them. It had clearly scrambled under the adjoining gate and unwittingly made itself the centre of a lot of unwanted bovine attention. The poor thing ran back and forth, desperately trying to find a way out. Feeling more than a little helpless – bearing in mind that this was happening on the other side of the valley, some ten minutes by road away, we watched as it tried to evade its pursuers. Eventually, it regained safe ground and peace returned to the scene once more.

After that we checked out the area where the large cub had been seen, but soon realised that it would need a concerted effort if we were going to find it. Since it was a lower priority than the others we’d been told about, we headed off along an old mud track that runs along the top of the hill above the rearing pens. Paul had his Browning T-Bolt HMR on his lap in case we got the chance to shoot some bunnies.

We’d only got about two thirds of the way along when an adult fox suddenly ran straight across in front of us, less than 20 yards away. I jumped on the brakes and Paul was out and up the bank in a flash. I saw him bring the rifle up to his eye, but wasn’t sure if he’d got sight of Charlie until I heard the slight snick of the safety catch coming off. Next thing there was a loud crack, followed by a resounding ‘whump’. I didn’t need to see it to know that the fox was already good and dead. Sure enough, when I climbed up the bank, Paul was on his way over to pick it up. Neither of us consider the HMR to be a foxing calibre, however, at short ranges like this it certainly does the job. We left the carcass – that of a large dog fox, draped over a tree stump for the keeper to collect. Considering where it was heading, I thought it highly likely that it was the father of the litter we’d been tasked to deal with.

Since the sun was now in the last stages of disappearing below the horizon, we decided it was time to drive down to the field opposite the big warren where the cubs were said to be. Five minutes later we were there – Paul opened the gate and I drove through; I call him my Gate Bitch. Since a direct path might have alerted any foxes to our presence, I took a long circular route around the back of the hill to take up our position. For safety reasons, I then parked the truck so that it was pointing along the side of the hill instead of downwards. I certainly didn’t want two tons of Land Rover rolling over me if the hand brake cable snapped!

The light was starting to go, so it was time to get myself ready, but before unloading everything, I grabbed the thermal to check that there were no foxes visible. Satisfied that the only mammals in view were a few cows, the NV spotter’s harness went on and the thermal was hung around my neck. After that, I pulled my face veil on and loaded the Kimber .204 before slinging it over my shoulder. The last thing I did was grab a length of foam sheet from the truck and I had everything I needed. Paul announced that he’d take the caller and set up on the far side of the hill, as there was little point in two of us watching the same piece of ground. With that organised, I chose my observation point and laid the foam on the ground – not only was it quite damp, but there were numerous piles of rancid sheep droppings scattered about the place. My Vanguard sticks were soon adjusted to suit the steep hillside, and I quickly checked that they would allow me to take a stable shot, after all, the bank I was watching went from some 150 yards out to double that.

The ground opposite me rose steeply for a hundred feet or so from a narrow road up to the brow of the hill where we’d just shot the dog fox. Although it is nominally a field, at the end I was interested in it is actually more like a gorse bank with a few patches of grass here and there. The rabbits love it – at least they do when there isn’t a litter of foxes in residence. For the first time I can remember, there were almost no bunnies to be seen – normally it’s crawling with them.

As soon as I was satisfied with my set up, I began scanning with the mini-thermal. One of the problems with doing this after a beautiful day is that all manner of things that have been warmed by the sun’s rays can carry residual heat for several hours. When every piece of vegetation is producing some kind of thermal signature, it makes it very difficult to interpret the information your eye is receiving. I always say that it took me six months to train my brain to ‘see’ things properly, and I still stand by that statement.

Sweeping back and forth, I did my best to spot any creatures hiding in the undergrowth. This took quite a long time as there was still too much light for the NV spotter to be of much use. Although I could survey the landscape with it by turning the tube’s brightness right down, it’s much more helpful if you can use it to pick up eye-shine. Until it was properly dark, however, the laser wouldn’t generate the necessary reflections. I was hoping that I’d hear the usual skittering of fox cubs at some point as it would help me pinpoint them, but I actually picked one up with the thermal before that happened. It vanished before I could get the rifle onto it, so I assumed that there was a hole somewhere nearby.

It gradually got darker, and before long I was able to start switching between the NV and the thermal. I saw a badger come over the brow of the hill – it had its nose down and was snuffling away as it went. A couple of rabbits saw it coming and ran off to safety. Although most townies think they eat a fantasy Disney diet composed of seeds and nuts, Old Brock in reality likes nothing better than some nice fresh meat – especially if it comes in the form of something tasty like a hedgehog. I could also hear an owl calling, and as it was more or less exactly where I was expecting any foxes to be, I made a mental note to watch out for an extra pair of bright eyes. Sure enough, a minute or so later, I got a really strong reflection from the top of a hedge. It stayed there for a while, and then flew a hundred yards along and settled on a fencepost.

I had a few alarms as fox-like shapes showed up in the thermal, but each time they more or less immediately disappeared into the gorse. Eventually, one came back out, and I had the rifle – which was fitted with an NV add-on system, on it in moments. I had my left hand supporting my right elbow, so my aim was nice and steady. I knew the range was almost exactly two hundred yards, as I’d measured it with my Leica range-finding binos before the sun went down. I played with the focus, gain control and magnification until I was satisfied that I’d got the best possible picture, and when the fox stopped to nuzzle at a clump of grass, I gently squeezed the trigger. The rifle barked and a loud ‘pop’ at the other end confirmed that the shot was a good one. The thermal confirmed that it had gone down, so I sat back to wait to see if anything else showed. About twenty minutes later, another Charlie appeared and I repeated the performance. I tried a third time, but much to my annoyance, the fox jumped forwards to snatch at something just as I fired. I hate not hitting my target, but at least I knew it was a clean miss as the fox ran around the side of the gorse and dived out of sight.

After another half hour nothing else had showed, so I decided to call it a night. Packing everything away, I drove the truck across the field and collected Paul. We were both dog-tired by then, but at least we’d managed to fight the foxing addiction off for another night!

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