Wallowing In The Mud

Not far from where I live is a glorious pheasant shooting estate that I’ve written about several times before. Spread across a vast area of deep goyles and thick cover, it presents a serious challenge to both the game-bird Gun and the foxer. It’s known for its excellent birds because the shape of the land causes them to fly well. The keeper – for whom I’ve been doing the fox control for some time, has recently been going up the wall, however. Only a few months ago – in late summer, he considered the estate to be more or less fox-free. Since the first frosts have bitten though, this situation has changed dramatically, and the place is crawling with them once again. There’s nothing like a large crop of young poults to bring Reynard in!

One fox in particular has been bugging him incessantly – every time they try to do the main drive, it runs through the cover crop ahead of them, sending the birds everywhere – except, of course, where they’re meant to go. This ruins the drive and makes him look bad. Normally, I’d have dealt with the offender in short order, however, the area that it frequents is in a nightmare of a position from my perspective. There is only one way to access it, and that’s down a barely-used track – at the other end, there is no clear visibility – the terrain is not only thick with mud, but it dips and folds all over the place – much of it is also covered with thick undergrowth. To make matters worse, if you go anywhere near the place during the day, it spooks the birds terribly.

After yet another tale of woe from the keeper about the said culprit, I decided to see if I could catch up with it, in spite of all the difficulties. The weather was really lousy, but there was the chance of a small window in the rain, and besides, my Good Lady wanted me out of the house so that she could wrap some Xmas presents without me being in the way. So – all loaded up, I set off. My first stop was to scatter some more bait around one of my ‘Fox Pots’. These are large industrial yarn spools that I’ve recycled (‘repurposed’ in the modern parlance) by machining one flange off and adding a large access hole in the top. With three legs on the bottom, they stand about a foot high, and look a bit like mini-pheasant feeders.

The idea is that you can not only carry a load of stinking bait without it leaving your vehicle smelling like an abattoir, but once you’ve loaded the canister up with dead stuff and sealed it, you can handle it without getting covered in ‘orrible goo. Anything that attracts foxes will work – road-kill is ideal. Once you’re in position, you simply pull a strip of duct tape off the outlet and then secure it in place with four tent pegs. The contents then slowly drip out, sending a strong scent trail whichever way the wind blows. There’s little risk of any foxes running off with it, and as they can’t get at the bait, it’ll keep them coming for ages. It is, of course, sensible to throw some titbits around to hold any inquisitive Charlies in the vicinity. Dry dog biscuits work well because they’re reasonably hard to find, and that means you’re likely to get more of a chance of a shot while the visitor snuffles around looking for them.

A lot of people swear by stink-pipes – these work on much the same principle. They are simply long lengths of pipe which are sunk into the ground and then filled with bait. Foxes come to them, but can’t get at the tasty morsels. There are two basic problems with this though – firstly, not many farmers welcome people digging holes all over their farms, and secondly, if you want to move them it takes a lot of time and effort. All you need to do to move a Fox Pot is pull up four pegs and you’re good to go. I like to add a bit of extra bait once a week or so – I’ve only been using this method for a short while, but it’s already accounted for some foxes that I couldn’t get near any other way.

With that all sorted, I moved on. The mix of heavy mizzle and light rain was made worse by the fog, and I knew that I’d really have my work cut out. The drive from the bait site takes me through some ancient woodland, down a tight twisting lane bordered by high banks. There is an Iron Age earthworks nearby, and about a year ago – in the field above it, I found a Neolithic flint hand scraper. I thought it really appropriate that it was last used by a hunter, some six thousand years ago, and was then found by another hunter! The land has therefore obviously been occupied for a considerable amount of time – given the amount of wildlife around, I’m not surprised though – it must have been a bounteous place to live. At the bottom of the valley there is a narrow stone humpback bridge over a fast-flowing river. Beyond this, the lane rises past a scattering of farm buildings, climbing slowly round countless bends until it reaches more open ground. Here the terrain is mostly given over to sheep farming, but in the lusher places there are occasional herds of cattle. The tarmac – and I use that term loosely, as it rarely sees any traffic and has a wide strip of debris up the middle, can only be seen where the infrequent tyres contact it.

Once at the top of the hill, I stopped to check the local landscape. Around here most of the roads have tall hedges on either side – this is all very well, but it doesn’t make life easy if you want to know what’s on the other side. To get around this problem, I built myself a roof platform for the Disco. Accessed by a ladder mounted on the back door, I’ve equipped it with a series of short lengths of stainless steel pipe. If I spot a fox while I’m up there, I have a short rest which slots into whichever of these is best-placed. It’s composed of a length of wide carbon fibre tube scavenged from a scrap yacht boom, and topped off with a rotating rifle yoke – the same as on my Vanguard shooting sticks.

Somewhere off in the distance a fox was calling – but as it was way off the estate I took little notice. I was much more interested in what was nearer to hand. Apart from a lonely rabbit nibbling away at the fresh young shoots in a nearby field of stubble, however, there was nothing about. At least all the low cloud meant that the dreaded moon wasn’t ruining my night! Setting off again, I trickled the few hundred yards until I reached the gate that leads into the night’s target area. Unlatching the chain, I dragged it around until it sat against the hedge – it could stay open for now, as there was another gate at the end, and there were no side exits in between.

I drove down the steep hill at a snail’s pace – partly to minimise the noise, and partly to ensure I stayed in full control. When I reached the bottom I had to negotiate a wide area of mud which lies beneath a narrow strip of oak and ash trees that border a small river. This was in spate and making quite a racket – I made a mental note to avoid using the caller anywhere near it. My experience has shown that foxes can’t hear the sound if there’s a noisy watercourse nearby. Presumably, there is a clash between those high-pitched frequencies that are beyond our human hearing.

The next gate was secured by a piece of twisted wire at one end, and hinged with baler cord tied in the manner of a Gordian Knot at the other. Fortunately, the wire unwound without any problems, and moments later my Land Rover was through. Although I wasn’t aware of any stock in the vicinity, there was no way that I’d have risked leaving it open. The idea of trying to chase some cows up the narrow lane – with no way past, was beyond my plans for the night. Consequently, I made sure that it was fully closed. Good job I did…

From there on up the other side of the valley things got a bit more serious, so I engaged both diff-lock and low ratio. It was clear that my mud terrain tyres were going to have to earn their keep. After some slithering and sliding, I eventually reached the point where the track stops – once there, you have the choice of turning left through yet another gate, or turning right out into the open field. Since I could see from the deep tractor ruts that the going there was even worse, I opted to turn the truck around and point it back downhill so that if it sank I’d have a chance of extricating it. I took the precaution of pointing the wheels into the bank as a safety measure though.

I’d already put my face veil on, together with the thermal imager and night vision spotter when I’d stopped to put the bait out. All I needed to do therefore was grab my sticks, my rifle – a Kimber Montana in .204R, and the FoxPro Scorpion caller, and I was off. In the past I always used to have to fight to get my sticks out of the truck, as they always seemed to tangle themselves in something – usually one of the seat belts. Over the previous week, however, I’d mounted a pair of curtain tie-back hooks on the roof of the truck – these were then wrapped in foam to minimise any rattling. As a result, both I and my shooting partner (when he isn’t away skiing) could simply lift them off without any fuss – simple and easy.

Since there was a constant light rain, it was a certainty that water would get onto the scope and illuminator unless I took precautions. Consequently, earlier on I’d slipped a foam cover over the scope and a little finger that I’d snapped off a pair of disposable gloves over the laser illuminator. These could be whipped off in no time should the possibility of a shot arise, and being soft would slip into a pocket without causing me any grief. I don’t like flip-up covers as they catch in the bushes as well as obstruct the laser if they get knocked. Before I ventured out into the open I had to scout out the immediate terrain – it’s only too easy to realise there’s a fox close by when it’s too late. The thermal showed that there were two birds – probably woodcock, about a hundred yards out in front of me. Up to the left there were two large heat signatures – a quick glance with the NV confirmed that they were red deer hinds. Since they were downwind, I knew they wouldn’t get in my way – they’d be off over the horizon.

The wind was gentle and blowing from the south-west – I’d deliberately driven to a point that would place me well off the scent trail of my target fox. The only problem with my approach route was that it would be over open ground. Going further up the hill would mean that I couldn’t see down into the goyle, and going further down would be waste of time as my scent would blow around the hill into the fox’s usual habitat. My plan was to go very slowly and scan very carefully, so that at any given time, only my head would be visible. The mud limited the speed I could go at anyway, so my progress was more or less noiseless. Every now and then the peace would be broken by the alarmed squawking of a pheasant – right where I was expecting my intended quarry to be – and that probably indicated the presence of a fox

Whenever I checked with the thermal, I could see white blobs up in the trees where the pheasants were roosting. An old country lore has it that foxes will circle round and round a tree below a pheasant until the watching bird gets so dizzy that it falls out, whereupon Mr Charles gets his meal. I’ve never seen it happen though!

After about five minutes of contouring around the side of the hill, I spotted a white shape between where I was and the game cover crop – which is where problem fox appears to spend most of its time. Now it could have been a hare, but I was pretty confident that it would prove to be Charlie, so gave it the briefest of glances with the NV. Sure enough – it was indeed, its bright eyes flashing brightly in the darkness of night. I slowly edged my sticks into position, and got the rifle on top of them – as I was doing so, I became dimly aware of a sound like thunder. As this penetrated my consciousness, I prayed that I was wrong. But no – even the ground was shaking as about fifty demented heifers came charging over the hill. Mr Reynard was gone in a flash, and I was in serious danger of being trampled. I was so angry though that I believe I’d have punched out the first Friesian to come within reach.

Fortunately, they wheeled off – but the stupid creatures decided to herd up right next to the cover crop. It was clearly a waste of time my staying there any longer, so I began my weary trudge back to the truck. God I hate cattle! I’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve ruined my evening, and I count them as my number one safety risk when I’m out. They may be gentle enough, but when they’re running downhill in a group, they can’t stop suddenly – even if they can see you. At night it’s even less likely. When I was a kid the local farmer taught me to always stay uphill of them – but that only works if you know they’re there…

I’ve since spoken to the keeper about it, and he reckons the ones where I was are the most mental animals he’s ever had the displeasure of encountering. Although the truck wasn’t that far away, I also had to watch the handful that had run down the track. I was thankful that I’d shut the gate – my problem though was that these animals now wanted to join their mates – and that meant that they were heading my way through the bushes – there was a lot of crashing and hooves stamping, but I got clear of them without incident. People have been killed by their like – and that’s in daylight.

Anyway – although part of me was so hacked off that I could easily have packed up and gone home, the rest of me was saying that as I’d come this far, and my clothing and kit couldn’t get any wetter, I might as well carry on and try again in the next field. To this end, I climbed the metal gate and set off on another long slog up the hill. The mud was truly horrendous, but if I was to have a chance, I’d have to reach the more level ground at the top where I could use the caller properly. I was cursing the severity of the going, but then I thought back to what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks – transcribing my late grandfather’s hand-written First World War memoirs. They detailed amongst other things how he spent weeks on end in the mud under shellfire at Passchendaele – dodging machine gun bullets, shrapnel and countless gas shells. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, they somehow survived on about two hours sleep a day, with minimal food, next to no shelter, appallingly bad equipment and the constant companionship of fleas, lice, rats and countless unburied dead. Very few of his mate’s survived. I quickly decided that the difficulties I was experiencing were not worth a moment’s further consideration.

Before long, I reached another gate – this time it was a wooden jobbie – which after all the rain was as slimy as a slug that’s been rolling in a fresh cow pat. Somehow I made it over in one piece (gates are second on my ‘highest safety risk’ list) and eventually reached the flatter ground beyond. Pausing to catch my breath, I had a quick inspection of the landscape. There were about thirty birds scattered about between where I was and the boundary on the far side – they were mostly woodcock and plovers.

Scanning a bit further, I could see a much larger shape in the base of the hedge –  it was moving relatively slowly and was somewhere over two hundred yards out, but definitely behaving in the manner of Monsieur Reynard. Again, I had a very quick glance with the NV – not all foxes are frightened of lasers, but it’s my opinion that people who’ve lamped them with red filters have made many very wary. Strong eye-shine and a distinctive silhouette confirmed my initial suspicions. The fog made matters very difficult, however, as it reduced the visibility too much for my liking. Although a shot was technically possible, it wasn’t clear enough – I’d have to get it closer. I’d already switched the caller on and tested it was working – there’s nothing more frustrating than putting it out in the middle of a field and then finding that for one reason or another it’s not responding. The problem now was that if I went more than a few yards out, the birds would get spooked and fly off shrieking – and that would be guaranteed to warn the fox that I was there.

I therefore tip-toed about twenty paces out and pushed the caller’s mounting spike into the ground (another of my modifications). Back at my sticks, I had another look – I’d not been seen, and my quarry was still making its way up the hill. This is where a combination of luck and judgement come into play. I knew that if I played a call that was too loud, the fox may well run off in the other direction. On the other hand, I couldn’t tell how strong the wind was blowing where it was, or how loud the river was over there, and therefore could end up using too low a volume. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and tried using vole squeaks at three-quarter volume. These are very quiet, but seem irresistible to hungry foxes.

I ran the call for about twenty seconds without any reaction at all from Charlie. He had his nose to the ground and didn’t even look in my direction. I tried again at full volume – but with the same result. I’m certain that he’d have responded if I’d been able to put the caller further out, but I didn’t have that luxury on this occasion. He was, however, getting closer – the thermal signature was getting stronger – in other words, the white shape was standing out more clearly and getting bigger. He was obviously crossing the field in a diagonal manner – and that suited me just fine. Rather than try another call, I just waited until he was in the right position. When he was sideways on and had his head up, I gently touched off a shot. There was a resounding thump at the other end, and my quarry simply collapsed on the spot. I could tell from the tone of the strike that it was a solid chest hit, so I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.

I counted the paces over to the carcass – 190, so considering the conditions, a very respectable result. He was a very well-built dog fox, and, judging by the length of his teeth, was at least two years old – possibly more. When I weighed him later he came in at twenty pounds – so not the biggest I’ve shot by a long way, but still a sizeable animal. He’d clearly been eating well, so I suspect that he’d taken his fair share of the keeper’s pheasants. As he was on the edge of where I shoot on the estate, it is entirely likely that I’d not seen him before. I hope to be seeing a lot more of him though – he’s currently in my freezer, as he was in such fine condition that I fancy having him mounted by a taxidermist. The trip back to the truck was uneventful – taken that I was not only carrying my rifle, the caller and my sticks, but also a weighty Charlie, I went rather slowly. Going down the hill, the mud was so slippery that I seemed to go two inches sideways for every foot forwards. I wasn’t complaining though – given how things started out, I was very satisfied that they’d finished so well!

16th December 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *