When is a badger sett not a badger sett? It’s not a joke; it’s a serious problem for people like me who need to control foxes.
We have very few fox litters on the farm as a rule (I see to that). But you can never be sure you’ve found every one and it pays to keep your eyes open in case one moves in.
For example, there’s an old badger sett in a quiet corner of the farm and I cast an eye over it from time to time. A year or so ago, I noticed a few duck feathers and the odd pheasant wing on the ground around the sett. This raised my suspicions: ‘These badgers were eating remarkably well,’ I thought.
The law makes it a serious offence to disturb a badger sett, although it fails to define exactly what ‘disturb’ means. In some people’s eyes, even walking near the sett, or allowing the tractor spray boom to pass over it, amounts to disturbance. Certainly, you have to tread carefully if you suspect a fox may have taken up residence in a sett, even if you believe the badgers have all moved out.
I crept back on a warm afternoon and, sure enough, there was a litter of fox cubs playing in the sunshine. Since I couldn’t be sure the badgers were gone, I decided I had better deal with it at a distance. I set up a high seat in cover. It was far enough away at 180 yards, but meant that I could take a shot at an approaching fox.
I went out mornings and evenings for two, three or even four hours at a time. Four days in a row I saw the vixen but didn’t get the chance of a shot. She was wary, as they tend to be when they have cubs. You often don’t see a thing, not even an eye peeping from cover. I think in this case she was using a ditch to approach and leave by. There are little signs here and there that you can spot if you know what you’re looking for. The scenery changes in small ways, and the odd carcase appears by the entrance.
One evening, the vixen emerged from another hole entirely. She was obviously enjoying a break from being pulled about by the cubs. She came out, stretched and sat down. I got a bead on her but she was on the horizon. Behind her was a paddock where some local people keep their horses, so I couldn’t risk a shot. It was almost as if she knew.
She sat there for 10 minutes, then set off into some cover and didn’t come out the other side. I tried a few mouse squeaks but she wasn’t interested and I didn’t want to push it.
On the fifth evening, it was at last light that I finished my chores and almost didn’t bother to go. But I chided myself: if you don’t go, you’ll never know. I zoomed up there, realised I had got the wind wrong and had to go round the other way to a second high seat I had set up. It was starting to look like a waste of time.
I thought about sneaking in as usual (one pace and stop, look, one pace and stop, look) in case the vixen was sitting there watching over the cubs. However, time was short as there was only 15 minutes of shooting light left. I decided to move in quietly but steadily without stopping. I reached the high seat, climbed up and gently got myself settled in to wait.
That’s the time to get everything sorted out around you, so you can find it later when it gets dark. I checked the lamp and placed it within easy reach beside me. The rifle loaded and resting on the rail, I scanned the scene with my naked eye before raising the binoculars for a closer look.
There’s an art to using binoculars. Anyone can hold their binoculars to their eyes and go, ‘Hmm, nothing there,’ but how many of us really know how to look with binoculars? For instance, you can use the binoculars’ shallow depth of focus at short range to look deep into cover. Hold the binoculars still and concentrate on the piece of cover that interests you, then slowly rotate the focus wheel. You will see the focus move towards or away from you, depending on which direction you turn the wheel. By blurring the nearest cover you can see what’s behind more clearly.
Most people scan from left to right with binoculars. That’s the way we read and it feels more natural, but it may not be the best way to spot your quarry. I scan in the opposite direction to the way I expect my quarry to be moving. Perhaps, as on this occasion, I think the vixen will be heading back to the earth, travelling from left to right. In that case I will scan from right to left. If she is moving across the terrain in front of me, she can’t help coming into my field of view. If I was scanning in the same direction as her, I might be just ahead or just behind, and never see her.
Quite often I will simply hold the binoculars steady on one spot and watch, waiting for movement. Our eyes are very good at picking up something moving, even if it’s not in the centre of our vision. They detect movement and flick to it almost instantly. If you are constantly swinging the binoculars this way and that, everything in your field of view is constantly moving. You’re not letting your eyes do the one thing they are best at.
As it turned out, I didn’t need my binoculars this time. The vixen had been laid up in some thick cover just 60 yards away, between the cubs and me. My approach hadn’t disturbed her and, 10 minutes later, I saw her sitting on the edge of the cover. Once she thought the coast was clear, she set off towards the earth. She never saw me slowly swing the rifle round and, boom, that was it. After all that trouble, in the end it was dead easy.
I waited on, but nothing else moved. I finally climbed down and went over to pick her up. It was a vixen all right, but barren. I had shot a milky vixen earlier on, some way off, and had looked hard for the cubs to no avail. This was a good-sized fox and, although I had seen her approach the cubs, I was surprised they had not tried to suckle. I could now see why. The remains of game around the entrance showed she was feeding them, but the absence of any other adults left me to conclude that she had taken over the litter after I had killed their mother – but then never jump to conclusions.
Now I have a litter of cubs on my hands, but that’s a straightforward task. Once you’ve got the vixen, the cubs tend to stay put. First, I want to see if any other adults move in. This is a good chance to catch a call or lamp shy fox. Cubs are like magnets to any foxes in the area. Even if they aren’t related, they will often drop by to have a look and a sniff. I will throw the cubs roadkill rabbits and the like for the time being – they are old enough to do fine on solid food – and continue with my regular morning and evening vigils in the high seat.
As for the badgers, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of one near those holes. I think I’m safe enough from being accused of interfering with a sett, and can call it an earth. Robert Bucknell