Mike Powell reflects on over half a century’s fox control efforts, which have seen the UK’s top predator become more common and less wary despite the nation’s increased interest in foxing
Occasionally I look back over the years that I have spent in the pursuit of the fox and think how many changes there have been. There is so much advice out there today on how you should set about dealing with the country’s top predator, both in magazines and books and in the vast quantities of posts on the various shooting websites.
The range of equipment available to foxers is vast, and is growing all the time. Certainly fox shooting has become a sport in its own right. Yet despite the huge array of equipment and knowledge levelled against it, the fox continues to flourish. Many, me included, believe the overall numbers are increasing. This in itself is quite amazing as in the 60-plus years I have pursued this creature in all the ways legally possible, the number of people who go ‘foxing’ has increased from just a few shooters and keepers to legions of enthusiasts.
It would be fair to say that a lot of shooters kill just the odd fox, but there are a great many people who account for quite large numbers of the creature. How is it, then, that despite this fox numbers don’t seem to be in decline? From what I read and what I have been told, in large areas of the country foxes are everywhere – and that’s without mentioning the towns and cities, which without any doubt are playing a large part in the growth of the fox population.
Another factor that should be reducing fox numbers is the ever-increasing number of cars on our roads. In his book Foxing With Lamp and Rifle, Robert Bucknell quoted some estimated figures of fox deaths by various means. His estimate was that 100,000 foxes could be killed on our roads yearly. That book came out over 10 years ago, and without a doubt the number of cars has increased substantially since then, so the number should be even higher now.
In the same item, Robert gives a figure of 80,000 killed by shooting. Again, the number of people actively shooting foxes has almost certainly risen in the last decade – but the number of foxes killed by hunts has almost certainly fallen, as has the number snared. The latter is because of a reduction in full time keepers, and although part-time keepers are doing sterling work, I doubt that many of them have the time to snare as many as keepers did years ago.
The accuracy of those figures is a matter for debate – but the debate is almost irrelevant, as the number of foxes we see about speaks for itself. There is little doubt in my mind that they are adapting to the changing ways of the countryside and are living ever closer to us.
Near me is a valley that runs for about two miles. There are a few houses scattered along it, while the fields either side rise sharply. From the sides of this valley there is a clear view of the houses, people, dogs, cars and so on in the village. I spend much time on these hillsides by day and night, and this enables me to see the valley much as a fox would. I can clearly understand why the number of fox predations on livestock grows year on year. Why should the fox, who can clearly see and hear people day and night, be afraid?
More and more I am called out to deal with foxes that have casually walked into yards and gardens while people are about, and made off with some luckless chicken. I am constantly hearing of confrontations where a fox will take a hen or duck right in front of the owner. Also, fox activity during daylight hours seems to be on the increase. Normally daylight raids on poultry occur during the breeding season but now, certainly in my area, they are becoming commonplace all year round.
I have lived in the village for over 40 years and the human population has increased quite a bit over that time. Many of the newcomers feed the wildlife, foxes included. The number of cars has probably trebled, and the number of people walking around the highways and byways has now reached plague proportions! Little wonder then that our friend the fox takes little notice of us humans.
Moving to the urban fox, these are clearly thriving and many of them cause us in the country no problems (not directly anyway). However, if there is a town anywhere near open country, rest assured there will be a constant leakage of foxes into those fields, some of which will inevitably stay there.
Finally there is the vexed subject of ‘dumping’. It is now accepted that this goes on. I have come across dumped foxes and have shot a few that carry operation scars. These particular foxes had survived the transition from town or city to countryside as I had observed them hunting happily over several months. It would be interesting to know just how many do take to the rural life. Certainly, not all dumped foxes die within a short space of time. A nearby keeper recently shot a fox that had had a leg amputated, but which was otherwise healthy and had been hunting the area regularly.
Cubs now appear above ground on a regular basis, and the litter of bones, feathers and so on will bear witness to occupied earths. A patient wait will often account for one or both of the old foxes, and you will then know exactly where the cubs are. Either wait for the cubs to appear, or better still, find a good terrier to get the matter sorted.
The ethics of how to deal with cubs has long been discussed. Certainly if they are only a day or two old they will die quickly if deprived of food. Older cubs who are starting to show above ground can also be dealt with quickly and humanely. It’s the bit in between that bothers many. Personally, I try to locate the earth before dealing with the vixen, then generally I can deal with the cubs quickly.
Recently, I and some neighbours had been losing the odd chicken, and the neighbouring farmer had a lamb taken. Now I take a jaundiced view of having my poultry attacked and take all precautions against it. However, there was certainly a very bold fox in the immediate neighbourhood in addition to the one I capture night after night on the cameras.
My black lab Talon, who hates foxes with a passion, had shown no sign of picking up any fox scent – that is up until a few days ago when I was out picking up the eggs. Suddenly I heard the unmistakable sound of the dog having a battle with one of his two pet hates, a fox or a cat. The less said about the latter, the better.
The sounds were coming from the end hedge about 100 yards away. Grabbing the little Benelli 28-bore, I followed the sounds and was just in time to see the dog emerging from under the holly bushes with a horrendously mangy fox. I am no fox lover but this poor creature was a mess. Separating the dog from his victim was not easy, but I did it and finished off the job. It really was a case of doing the fox a favour.
The next thing was to get some anti-mange treatment for the dog. Advocate seems as good as anything for this purpose. A quick examination revealed a few bites around Talon’s already scarred muzzle. A wipe with antiseptic sorted those, but I missed a bite behind one of his ears, which turned really nasty but after a week’s treatment started to heal.
This fox had been living within 100 yards of my house and some 30 yards from a neighbour, yet no one had seen it. It was plain to see where it bedded down on a regular basis, and I suspect it had been there for some time. As foxes become more integrated with humans, their raids on our property will become more common. As the fox adapts to our ways, it behoves us to adapt to his.
I have cliff land near me where there have always been a large number of rabbits. Years ago, particularly outside of breeding season, they would only be seen at night. Foxes were there in numbers, and as more and more people began to use the cliff paths as a recreational area, so the rabbits’ behaviour changed. More and more they were seen out during the day, and at night you could only see small numbers. They had realised that night represented more danger than day and had altered their habits accordingly. If rabbits do it, why not foxes?
I would be interested to hear if any readers have experienced similar behaviour patterns. In the meantime, as always, keep your eyes open for Charlie – he will be there somewhere keeping an eye on you.