A Nice Pair

5th February 2012

Down here in the south-west, we had two extremes of weather in early February 2012. On the one hand it was either chucking it down with rain or snowing heavily, while on the other the nights were crystal clear with a moon so bright you couldn’t move without being seen. Since it was the lambing season in this region, however, I had to make the most of every opportunity to get out there. Some of the woolly little creatures were already wobbling their way around the fields – elsewhere, they were due to arrive over the coming weeks. This made it a very difficult time for sheep farmers. Not only did they have seemingly endless sleepless nights coping with all the deliveries and associated hard work, but there was always the threat of their little charges being attacked by foxes.

In some instances, these assaults appeared to be relatively minor – mostly, this involved their tails being chewed off with, the lambs themselves surviving. Sadly, when this happens, the trauma doesn’t end there, however. Typically, the poor creatures’ wounds then get infected and they end up with what is known as ‘joint-ill’, where the knees seize up for life. This is not only painful for the animal concerned and for the farmer to see, but there are economic downsides too. At the other end of the spectrum the attacks are fatal – either the lambs completely disappear without trace, or are left half-eaten for their mothers to mourn. I’ve seen ewes stand guard over their dead offspring for several days. It’s heartbreaking to see them patiently trying to nudge the torn remains back into life.

It’s not just lambs that get attacked though – in late winter many foxes find the going very hard. In some areas, the rabbit population has been all but wiped out by myxomatosis or viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD), and unless the local pheasant shoots have left a significant number of birds wandering around, there’s not a great deal for them to eat. This can lead to foxes breaking into poultry runs where they generally create mayhem. An attack that had occurred only a week previously had seen a goose and a whole coop of much-loved bantams killed just a couple of miles up the road from my house. It’s no surprise therefore when local farmers ‘phone asking for assistance. Whenever possible, however, I like to stay ahead of the game, and get to the foxes before they get to the livestock.

With this in mind, one afternoon I decided to check how things were going on a large farm that lies in the foothills to the north-west of Exeter. It’s a mixed sheep and cattle unit that also adjoins several of my other permissions. I guess in total they must add up to about two thousand-odd acres of some of the beautiful rolling landscape in the country. When I called, the farmer’s wife answered – she was very pleased to hear from me, as they’d seen a large fox wandering through their nursery paddock in bright daylight only the day before. Since their flock was due to start lambing within the week, this made them very nervous. I was therefore told that I’d be very, very welcome to come over that evening.

While I love my foxing, having a specific mission like this always helps stimulate my motivation. I spent the next couple of hours thinking through my options. The Met Office’s radar weather map was showing that it’d be dry with very light cloud cover and a gentle breeze from the north-west. The recent snow had pretty well gone, leaving thin scatterings of ice in sheltered spots. This meant that I could probably drive on some of the tracks, which in turn would allow me to reach some of the further areas. The main issue though was whether I should set myself up somewhere with a good view and just scan with the big thermal rig until I spotted a fox, or if it’d be better to go off on foot deerstalking-style. I couldn’t be sure until I got there, but my suspicion was that in spite of the forecasted light cloud cover, the moon would still be too bright for a calling session to be productive.

In the end, I decided that the best thing would be to load up all the relevant kit and see what things were like when I got there. The drive over is some eight or nine miles of small twisting lanes. The last stretch is even narrower and prone to flooding – I wasn’t all surprised therefore to find myself having to drive through thick, icy slush and mini lagoons that reached from hedge to hedge. It was no problem for my old Land Rover Discovery, but I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt it in a small family car.

A few hundred yards further on, I pulled into the farmyard and parked up. As I did so, the porch light came on and the farmer came out to have a quick chat. After exchanging pleasantries, he told me where he’d just found a dead sheep. He was going to clear it away in the morning, but felt that any foxes in the vicinity would probably waste little time in getting stuck in. Returning to the truck, I made a rapid assessment of the situation, and decided that I’d go out on foot for a bit, and if nothing was showing, I’d come back and set the big thermal imager up. My first port of call was, of course, going to be the area overlooking the sheep carcass. This was only a few hundred yards ahead of me, but there was a problem – it would be downwind of my position, and there were no alternative access routes. I’d just have to hope that the extra altitude would put my scent trail over the heads of any foxes lurking there.

With my face veil in place, I hung the mini-thermal around my neck – this placed it just above the NV spotter which dangles from an elasticated chest harness. I left the Foxpro in the truck as I wanted to travel ‘light’ (a bit of a joke, considering how much other kit I carry), and withdrew the Sauer from its slip. With this over my shoulder, I picked up my sticks and set off. I was pleased to find that the farmer had left the gate open for me, but less so when I immediately sank in the deep mud. Fighting my way clear of this, I got onto firmer ground. Now – I had a choice – I could cross over to the far hedge, or stick with the one I was next to. There were pros and cons to each – not knowing exactly where the carcass was, I didn’t know which would be the better approach. In the end, I decided to do a diagonal along the line of the wind path to minimise my scent distribution.

Every few paces, I stopped and had a scan around. I was badly exposed by the moonlight, but as there was nothing I could do about this, I carried on regardless. The field before me stretched away to a hedge some three hundred yards off – in between there was a large dip where three sheep were sheltering from the breeze. In amongst them were a few bunnies, but I couldn’t see any obvious sign of foxes. A minute or two later though, whilst looking through the thermal, I spotted a large white shape by the hedge. This confused me, as I thought the furthest sheep was lower down the hill – sure enough, when I scanned to the left, there it was, exactly where I’d last seen it. Damn! Quickly scanning back, the white shape suddenly bounded forwards a couple of times and then jumped up into the hedge and disappeared.

Had I just seen a fox some hundred yards out, or was the creature’s apparent size an optical illusion caused by a much closer bunny? Switching over to the NV, I had another look. I couldn’t be sure – whatever it was, there was now no sign of it, so I moved on. I didn’t want to disturb the area any more than I had to, but at the same time I needed to know precisely where the carcass was, so I slowly worked my way down the hill until I could see it lying up against the hedge away to my left. Using both the NV and the thermal, I checked that nothing fox-like was about and then retraced my steps back up the hill.

At the top there’s a gate that leads onto a neighbour’s land – fortunately, I’ve got permission to shoot there too, so this is where I was heading. Before climbing over, I quietly approached the low bank that sits to the left – this marks the boundary of the nursery paddock, a place where I’ve shot several foxes in the past. There were two sheep at the far end and a bunny by the top entrance, but nothing else, so I leant my sticks against the gate and carefully scaled it. The last time I’d done so a large branch had clattered loudly against my moderator – something it had done many times before. On that occasion, however, I’d had enough – and as I was on my way back to the truck at the time I wasn’t worried about making any noise. I therefore reached up and found the culprit before tearing it down with a loud bang. As a result, I was now able to proceed without any unwanted distractions, and made back it to the ground with my humour still intact.

The field I was in often contains some pretty wild cattle, so for safety’s sake, before I could do very much, I needed to see if I had any company. This is complicated by the fact that where I was standing was below the crest of the hill, and on the far side the ground drops away some hundred feet or so. Consequently, my only choice was to get to the top and have a look around – I’d need to do this in stages though, in case there were any foxes close by. Bit by bit, I worked my way up – my real focus of interest was off on the other side of the field, where an area of pasture runs alongside some woodland. Previous experience has shown that this is a favourite motorway for all manner of wildlife – I’d seen deer there – both red and roe, as well as untold numbers of foxes, badgers, bunnies and hares. Indeed, as I stepped forwards, a woodcock launched itself skywards, shrieking at the inconvenience of it all. To add to the theme, somewhere off in the distance, a couple of owls were yelling at each other.

Starting with the thermal, I saw that there was a bunny down below me, and another couple by the hedge to my left. Looking out further, I immediately saw that directly ahead of me were two large white shapes which were moving away from one another. The NV confirmed that I was looking at two foxes – and one was heading back towards the farm, right where the lambs I was meant to be protecting were. I decided to try and gain some ground as it was too far off for a shot, but I’d only got a few yards before I realised that it had stopped and was looking straight at me. Damn that moonlight!

This put me in an impossible position – it was clearly bright enough for the fox to see me, so trying to get closer was out of the question. Doing my best to minimise any movement, I set my sticks out and got the rifle in place. With the NV riflescope switched on, I adjusted it until the fox was in perfect focus. I ramped the illuminator up a few notches and settled my stance – at this stage the fox was still sitting bolt upright and watching my every move. Although the target seemed very narrow at that distance, it was presenting me with a perfect shot, its eyes glowing fiercely in the laser. I could see that I could be six inches out with the elevation, and it would still be well within the kill zone. I steadied my breathing and gradually positioned the reticle on its head. When I was completely happy, I slowly squeezed off a shot, As the rifle jumped, I heard a definite ‘plop’ at the far end, and the fox simply fell over. Result!

Before moving off to inspect my kill, I had to see where the other fox had gone. Thirty seconds or so of scanning around found it a couple of hundred yards off to the right. It was running off into the distance, nose to the ground and tracking something – clearly it was completely oblivious to me. It then disappeared into a thick hedge, before reappearing a minute or two later, heading even further away. Since it would be downwind once I’d crossed the valley, there was little point in attempting to go after it, so I counted my steps across to the one I’d just shot. I knew it was a long way out, but at 265 paces this was a record for me – my previous best was 255. I know it’s nothing special off a bipod, but it’s far from easy off standing sticks. It was a large dog fox – with no obvious signs of where the bullet had hit. Placing my foot on its body to see if I could encourage some blood to reveal the strike point, it was clear from the resultant sounds that most of its insides were now liquid.

Leaving the carcass where it was (for later collection), I started working my way upwind to see if there were any foxes amongst the sheep in the next field. This meant crossing another gate. Now when I say ‘gate’, I actually mean that the structure in front of me had been created from the remains of two very broken gates that had been haphazardly leant against each other and then loosely secured with baler twine. Having met them before, I knew that getting across without either causing injury to myself or making obtrusive metallic sounds would be an absolute nightmare. How I hate gates…! Somehow, I managed to keep everything intact, and I was off again. My next obstacle was a muddy bank topped off with a series of small trees and barbed wire. Deep joy. Placing the rifle in a safe position, I got onto my belly and wormed my way through, desperately trying to keep the NV and thermal out of harm’s way.

On the other side, I found a bunny looking somewhat alarmed at my sudden appearance. Elsewhere in the field there were various sheep and cattle – but no foxes. Leaving them to their own devices, I then checked the nursery field where I immediately got strong ‘eye-shine’. Luckily, I knew it was just the reflectors on some agricultural machinery that was temporarily stored there. Moving on, I clambered over the next gate – this leads onto a sunken dirt lane which runs up through the middle of the farm. I now had a choice – I could turn right and head up the hill to the next series of gateways, some three or four hundred yards on, or I could go in the opposite direction back down into the farmyard. Going up the hill would not only mean a hard slog, but it would take me away from the aforementioned sheep carcass. Not wanting to avoid the chance of getting a shot at any scavengers, I therefore turned left.

From my perspective, as farmyards go, this wasn’t a bad one. There were few lights on, and the barky dogs had all been locked away until I’d gone home. And only one gate to navigate! I checked the adjacent paddocks, but saw nothing, so headed on past my truck and back into the first field. Now that I knew where the carcass was, I could be much more cautious about my approach. From the top of the hill I could see that the three sheep hadn’t moved, and there were still a few bunnies here and there. Sticking close to the right hand edge, I moved another few yards forwards, and at first thought that little had changed – but then, over by the dead sheep, I spotted a fox. Game on!

Backtracking rapidly, I moved up out of its line of sight and crossed over to the opposite side. Once again, this placed me upwind of the carcass, so I knew that there was a significant risk of being scented, and that I therefore had little time to waste. Sneaking along under the cover of the hedge, I gained about a hundred yards before the fox came back into view. It had clearly had its fill of mutton, as it was now moving to the right, away from the carcass and along the bottom of the hill. I got the sticks up and started tracking it with the scope – it was moving in fits and starts, so there was little chance of a shot. About halfway across the field, it suddenly stopped and squatted to pee – at this I loosed off a shot, but missed. Damn – it was further out than I realised. Still – it wasn’t all bad – my target had taken fright and run about a hundred yards closer to me before stopping to see what had happened. I didn’t waste the second opportunity, and this time my Blitzking smacked it down on the spot. As suspected, it was a small vixen – hit hard in the chest at 160 paces.

After photographing it, I swapped the Sealskinz glove on my right hand for a vinyl disposable version and carried the carcass back to the yard. The farmer was really excited that I’d done so well, and agreed to collect the remains of the dog fox in the morning. I later collected its skull and boiled it out to be mounted on the wall in my office. So – all in all, it had been a very satisfying evening’s work. After loading everything up, I climbed into the truck and began to wend my way home. I knew it was going to be a good journey as the moment I turned the radio on, the DJ on Planet Rock began playing a track from Page and Plant’s acoustic version of ‘No Quarter’. Superb stuff. And to top it off, I arrived home to stir-fried venison and roast veggies waiting for me. Result!

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