Chook Patrol

23rd May 2014

Over the years, word of my penchant for managing foxes has spread to a lot of the farmers across the region, and this has led to me covering something like 40,000 acres. Whatever the actual figure is, it keeps me very busy – I run my business (which has nothing to do with pest control) during the day, and I’m out almost every night, weather permitting. My Good Lady is very patient with me, but she recently put her foot down and stipulated that if I want to avoid getting divorced, she gets me for at least one evening a week. It’s usually Fridays, but on this occasion it suited her for us to spend Saturday together instead. As a result, I was free to head out on the night in question to see if I could catch up with a killer that had hit a large chicken farm.

The unit itself is very well run, with tall electric fences and efficient staff. I’ve yet to see free range birds being kept in any kind of enclosure that is 100% fox-proof, 100% of the time, however. Every now and then something goes slightly wrong – a fence gets damaged in an unseen place, or some birds manage to evade being locked up for the night. Often these are ones that are being bullied, and they are consequently reluctant to enter the sheds. When Charlie comes calling – as he typically does every night, he is quick to take advantage and immediately goes on the rampage – before you know it there are dead birds lying around all over the place.

The first time it happened there were about seventy carcasses – Emma, who had been left in charge while the farm’s owner went abroad, was straight on the case. She’d previously worked with two farmers who I’d helped out, so she called me up and asked for assistance. Anyone who is losing livestock always goes straight to the top of my list, so my shooting partner, Paul, and I went over that evening. Emma was kind enough to pore over my map and explain where the boundaries lay and how to access the various parts of the farm.

That done, we’d got about half an hour of daylight, so we set off for a look around. Although the terrain was beautiful – lying amongst the foothills of Dartmoor, just to the northwest of Exeter, we soon found that there was only one place where we could see to shoot. Everywhere else was covered with tall crops – mostly cereals and oilseed rape. This area lay halfway along the lower of the two main tracks, and was the site of some empty chicken sheds. We decided that the best thing would be to do a covert approach – the light was almost gone by then, and there was every chance that an opportunistic fox might be having a sniff around. Sure enough, as we crept around a rise in the ground we spotted a strong heat signal through the thermal imagers, some 200 yards away. It was the right size, but at that stage we weren’t able to get a positive ID as there was too much grass in the way.

We waited until the animal had gone behind a shed before we closed the distance. When we’d got to about 100 yards, it showed itself again – by then we’d got the night vision in action, and we were able to ascertain without any doubt that it was a large fox. It was Paul’s turn to shoot, so he quickly had his rifle – a Browning .22-250, up on his sticks. When the moment presented itself, he squeezed the trigger and our quarry fell on the spot. Since there was nothing else in sight, Paul walked over and recovered the carcass – it was that of a large dog fox. The long teeth showed that it was at least two years old, but other than that there was nothing remarkable about it. We tried calling for some time, but much to our surprise we didn’t see anything else. A large shooting estate adjoins the farm, however, so it’s probable that the keeper is doing a good job there. I’ve not met him yet though, so I don’t know how he goes about his fox control. Satisfied that we’d done the best we could under the circumstances, we headed home.

A few days later, Emma called me to say they’d been hit again, this time in the organics area which is separate from the free range section. Having had a chance to see the place first hand, I said that I thought that the perpetrators were coming across the neighbouring farm from a large area of woodland. We agreed that the best way ahead would be if she could seek permission for us to shoot there. Although this ground also had several fields covered in tall barley, there were areas which had only recently been seeded with cattle maize. As this was only an inch or two high, it would ideal for spotting foxes. I settled back into my day job while Emma did her bit, and an hour or so later I got a text saying that the necessary authority had been obtained. A quick exchange of maps via email ensured that all the boundaries were properly understood. The only fly in the ointment was that severe storms had been forecast for that night. Not wanting to drive a fair distance only to get rained off, we postponed my visit for a day.

The forecast was a little better, but it rained for most of the day. Come evening, however, and I was on my way – on my own for once as Paul was away on business. As I drove over I noticed that all the valleys off in the distance had what looked like white smoke in them. All the moisture on the ground was now rising as mist. I was concerned that it might become a problem, but kept my fingers crossed that I’d at least get a couple of hours in. I arrived on site with about half an hour of daylight left – this gave me just enough time to find the right farm track and check out the lie of the land when I got there.

I parked up at a likely spot and began kitting myself out – the thermal imager went around my neck, and the NV spotter onto its chest harness. The FOXPRO Scorpion caller was then switched on and tested – once satisfied that it was behaving properly it went in my left pocket together with the piece of fishing rod I use to raise it up off the ground. Its corresponding remote controller went into the special pouch on my left shoulder. This gives it the maximum possible height so that the radio signal has the best chance of reaching the caller, a vital issue when you hunt over hilly ground. After that, I pulled on a woolly hat – the wind was quite chilly, and I didn’t want to get cold – that’s an excellent way of losing both motivation and concentration. Over the top went my face veil – there’s nothing like bare skin to give your position away at night. All that was left was for me to grab my .204 Kimber Montana and my sticks and pull my gloves on – after that I was good to go.

I’d already seen that there were several fields of long grass and a couple of vast areas of barley. The former would be just about doable, but going near the cereals would clearly be a waste of time. As I looked around for possible calling areas I could hear a serious cacophony in the valley below – someone had a collection of peacocks which were in full evening territorial shouting mode – what a racket. As I set about my reconnaissance I reflected on how popular their owner must be with the neighbours – having grown up amongst the things, I knew just how noisy they could be. I could also hear some ewes and lambs calling about half a mile away, but as this was nowhere near my permission, I took no further notice.

Setting out under the cover of a tall hedge, I made my way along the crest of a hill. This would give me a chance to look down into the small valley below. The fields there began about a hundred and fifty yards away, and stretched off into the distance. On the far side was the extensive wood where I suspected the problem foxes were coming from. I’d only gone about four hundred yards when I found an ideal spot – under some trees, to set myself up and spend a bit of time watching. I knew that the long crops would limit the places I could walk, and the last thing I wanted to do was leave a scent trail across the very areas where I expected the foxes to come from. There were several rabbits nibbling the maize shoots, and my first thought was that no self-respecting fox would miss the chance to check them out. Any individuals that were too young to know better or too ill to move as the result of myxomatosis would be easy pickings.

In my experience, foxes make such inspections of the local bunny population as it gets dark – in other words, I was there at exactly the right time. As if to underline my thoughts, I’d only been there for about a minute when three of the rabbits – which had up until then been peacefully munching away out in the middle of the field, suddenly went into afterburner mode and disappeared into the nearest hedge. When they got there they stamped their feet loudly. ‘Aha’, I thought to myself –‘There’s a fox somewhere down there’. Sure enough, a few seconds later, a large heat signal appeared from out of the long grass which stretched along fence-line. It was moving fast though, and when I switched to the NV and put my laser illuminator on, it immediately spotted me and began staring straight back, even though it was a couple of hundred yards away. That was unusual – I’ve had foxes take no notice even when they’ve been closer than twenty five yards. I assumed that it had previously had a bad experience with someone who had either been using NV or a red filter on a lamp.

It then ran across the field heading in the opposite direction, so I thought it must have scented me. It was directly downwind, but as I was well up on a hill, I didn’t expect my smell to reach it. Then, just as I was thinking I’d blown it, the fox stopped and made a piercing cry ‘Rr-oww’. I knew that it wouldn’t have done that if it had sussed me, so it was clear that my fears were unfounded. When it wasn’t looking I therefore dashed out into the field to place the caller. I located it well off to my left so that the wind direction was in my favour – that way if the fox came in its nose wouldn’t detect me.

Retiring back into the shadows I tried the vole squeaks, but the fox kept running. It then turned and went off to the right, calling every fifty yards or so – by then it was about four hundred yards out. Realising that it probably couldn’t hear the caller as the vole track is very quiet, I tried a couple of loud fox squalls. That stopped it in its tracks, and it turned and started coming back towards me in fits and starts, scattering the rabbits as it went. I could hear lots of feet stamping, so I could tell where it was even without my high tech equipment. In the past I’ve found that the rat distress call is very good at bringing foxes in, but only where they’ve not heard it before. I gambled that no-one had used anything like it in the area, and tried a quick blast. The fox stopped dithering and came charging across the field, closing to about a hundred and fifty yards – the moment I put my laser on though, it came to a sudden halt and ran off to the left up the field.

Just as I was thinking that I wasn’t going to get a chance at it, it stopped, sat back on its haunches and began calling again. That gave me a perfect opportunity to settle my rifle for a careful shot – I loosed a round and a split second later there was a gentle thud whereupon my target just fell on its side. I watched carefully to make sure there was no sign of life, and then moved on – as it was down in the valley I decided to collect it on my way back. I continued to wend my way along the top of the hill – conveniently, there was a badger track for me to follow, so I didn’t need to fight the undergrowth as I went.

I paused every twenty or thirty yards to check that I wasn’t missing anything nearby, and then when I reached an appropriate point I stopped for a full scan of the area. Behind me there was a field of maize – this bordered the chicken farm, so I was keen to make sure it was fox-free. At the far end I could see there were a few bunnies, and then as I swept the NV spotter across the field I found myself looking straight at a fallow doe – she appeared to be looking around for something, as she seemed a little distressed. I guessed she was a bit spooked by all the electric fencing that was in her way – either that or she had lost track of her fawn. I was pleased to see, however, that she was completely unfazed by the laser illuminator – around my way someone must be poaching the red deer with a filtered lamp because some of them disappear over the horizon the moment you put the IR on them.

Not wanting to spook her, I started off down the slope putting some extra distance between us. I’d only got about halfway down, however, when further along the valley I spotted a pair of vulpine eyes reflecting back from the IR laser. They were a long way out, but the glare was strong, which usually indicates that they belong to a dog fox. Making my way across such hilly terrain in the dark was knackering – especially with all the kit I was carrying, but there was no way I was going to let a potential killer get away without at least trying. When I got to the bottom of the hill I found myself in tall undergrowth – it came up to my chest, so I did my best to ensure that I didn’t walk into an unseen mineshaft or some other hidden hazard.

Getting free of the herbage, I paused for another look – I’d been contemplating putting the caller out and had been trying to work out where I should put it, but there was no need as my quarry was running straight towards me. I had the sticks up in moments, and as I switched the IR illuminator on the fox stopped dead and sat back on its haunches to see what I was. Not wanting to miss the opportunity I quickly put the reticle on its chest – it was only about 100 yards out, took aim and fired. There was a brief bark from the rifle and a corresponding thud as the bullet hit home. Monsieur Le Reynard fell without a twitch – I made my way over, and was surprised to find that it was a very large dog fox with an extremely short tail. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that it looked as though it’d had veterinary attention.

I picked my quarry up and carried it over to where the previous one had fallen. I’m used to carrying foxes, but this one was very large and well above the average weight. Consequently, I was pleased to put it down when I eventually reached the other carcass. The first thing I did when I got there was to switch the torch on to see whether it was male or female – I was somewhat taken aback to find that it was an ex-milky vixen with a tail that was only about three inches long. To find one fox with a short tail in this part of the world is highly unusual – to find two in the same field is beyond coincidence. I can only surmise that one of the so-called animal ‘charities’ had dumped them somewhere in the vicinity. Whether this was before or after the vixen had given birth to her cubs remains to be seen.

I deposited the carcasses where they could be collected by the farmer and started back towards the truck. The main downside to this was that I was now at the bottom of the valley, and before I could drive home I needed to reach the top – this involved a long slog over a lot of soft muddy ground. By then the mist was coming in thick enough to dampen any enthusiasm I might have had for continuing, so when I reached the Land Rover – all hot and sweaty, I simply unloaded the kit, climbed in, and headed off. As I drove back I reflected on the evening’s efforts – I like to review my methods in case there’s anything I can do to improve how I operate. I couldn’t think of anything I could have done better though, so came to the conclusion that for a first visit to unknown ground, I did very well indeed. I’d raised the number of foxes taken since the beginning of the year to eighty five, which bearing in mind that at this stage last year we’d only shot fifty one, is good going. Time will tell if I’ve sorted out the foxes that were responsible for the killing – in the meantime, all I’ve got to do is catch up on my sleep!

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