Advice for young shooters from Robert Bucknell

Robert Bucknell continues his foxing patrol, and offers advice for shooters missing out on this year’s game fairs.

Regular readers will know that we’ve pretty much cleared our ground of foxes, and our neighbouring farms keep on top of theirs too (some with a little help from us), so although we still go out regularly, it’s rare that we see a fox.

However, I’ve encountered a couple of this year’s youngsters. They were born and raised just over the boundary, in an old scrap yard where they can breed undisturbed.

There’s nearly always a litter under all the old metal in the yard. No one would dare put a terrier in there, and you certainly couldn’t dig them out. I think these two were pushed in our direction when the neighbour harvested the fields around the site.

He’d cut all the oilseed rape, and I’d been watching over the hedge and seen nothing on the stubbles. Then he started cutting the wheat beyond, which is where these cubs must have been living, and shortly afterwards they crossed the boundary onto our patch.

We have two fields next to each other, one 32 acres and the other 27, on which we’d just harvested the wheat. On one of my regular patrols I drove into the gateway of the smaller field and shone the lamp around – I still use the lamp to scan the fields from the truck, rather than thermal or digital night vision, as it allows you to cover more ground in less time, and as soon as I see a flash of eye, I can park up and switch to the thermal viewer.

The last supper

Sure enough, the lamp caught a pair of eyes, so I killed the light and picked up the thermal. I could see it was a fox, about 250 yards away, tugging at something that had been squished by the combine on the ground. It seemed to be stuck quite firmly, as the fox was having a job pulling it up.

I tried a couple of squeaks, but the fox was far too busy with whatever it had found. I settled down to wait 10 minutes while it finished its meal, then tried again.

This time it decided that perhaps the squeak was interesting and started working its way towards me. I could have taken a shot at any time, but there was no need to take the chance of a long shot while it was still coming nearer.

Foxes will take advantage of their surroundings

Much better to wait and make certain. When it got to 100 yards, I decided that was good enough. The fox caught my bullet in its front end, and down it went. When I checked, it was a young vixen – a good size, but definitely one of this year’s cubs.

With that one accounted for, I drove down to the next field and in through the gateway, which is halfway down the field. Scanning round, I quickly spotted a fox about 300 yards away, but directly in line with the road beyond, so no safe backstop.

It was crossing the field, and I quickly decided the best thing was to let it carry on, because even if I could turn it towards me the background was hopeless.

As I watched through the thermal, the fox reached the hedge. I tried a few squeaks, but it carried on through and disappeared into the old dry pond there. I figured it was bound to have heard my squeaks and might be curious, so it was worth getting up on the back of the truck and getting ready, just in case.

On the spot

The thermal revealed nothing more than a rabbit hopping out from the hedge into the field, but then a white blob appeared in the tall grass at the edge of the ditch. It was too big for a rabbit, but I couldn’t see a whole fox.

Looking carefully at the thermal image, I managed to work out what was going on. The fox had dropped into the dry pond hole, then come down the ditch to check out what the noise was all about. Now it was standing in the ditch looking out over the edge through the long grass.

There wasn’t a full dirt backstop, but I knew the field behind was clear, as I had only just left it, and there was plenty of thick hedge behind. In any case, I was confident of hitting the fox at this range, and it was facing towards me. If I put my bullet into the front end, the length of the fox itself would break up the bullet.

Use a lamp alongside NV and thermal for top results

I carefully placed my shot in the centre of the fox’s chest, and it went down on the spot. The bullet exited just in front of the fox’s hip, but of course it had expended most of its energy inside; the fox was definitely beyond economic repair.

This one was a young dog fox, most likely from the same litter as the vixen I had shot next door – they expired no more than 250 yards apart, so they might even have been working together.

Those are the only two foxes we’ve seen any sign of recently, and they were very quickly tidied up. Thermal allows us to be more efficient than ever now, of course, so I can be pretty confident there’s nothing else about on 2,000 acres. I’m still making nightly outings, so if something does move in then it will be quickly removed.

Lay of the land

As I’ve said before, those long hours driving round or waiting in a high seat are never wasted, even when you don’t see a fox. Apart from just keeping an eye on the place, you learn a lot about what is and isn’t on the ground. Of course, I’m seeing all the usual hares, rabbits, partridges, mice, owls, bats and the rest.

Curiously, one thing I haven’t seen lately is any mink or polecats. For a while they were popping up regularly, but I haven’t seen one for a good few months now.

We do have some otters on the place, and perhaps they are dealing with any intruders in the same way that one bird of prey will kill another that moves onto its patch.

Using NV/thermals is a great way to familiarise yourself with what’s on your ground

So it’s fascinating to go out, and I need to keep watch for foxes anyway, because between now and Christmas they will be moving around, and we are bound to have one or two attempts to set up home here.

Apart from anything else, we have a few hundred poults in our release pens for our little farm shoot, and that’s always a big draw. The smell from a pen full of pheasants travels a long way, and will draw them in from all around.

We used to have a poultry unit here on the farm, with several buildings that were home to around 120,000 birds. The ventilation system would draw in air at the top of the building, past all the birds, and head out just above ground level.

It’s hard to imagine anything that could be better designed to gather foxes from miles in every direction – and sure enough, in those days I used to kill an awful lot!

Missing the game fairs

By this time of year, I would normally have been to at least two or three game fairs, but of course this isn’t normal. All the fairs and shows have been cancelled, so we’re having to manage without.

From what I gather, people are still buying gear, whether that’s optics or thermal or new rifles – but of course they can’t do the usual thing of going to a game fair to see and handle all the goodies in one place. They’re having to buy something of a pig in a poke, relying on friends’ recommendations, or reviews in magazines or online.

As I writer, I miss the chance to chat to people from all over the country, hearing what’s going on in different places, catching up on the latest gossip, and hearing about little tips and tweaks that people have come up with.

You can find that sort of thing online, of course, but it’s not the same as talking to people face-to-face. Still, that’s how it is this year, and we just have to make the best of it. 

So if you’re missing those tips and tricks we would have picked up at the game fairs, here’s a couple to keep you going: 

Number 1 – Take the opportunity to refurbish your high seats at this time of year. 

The ground is dry, and the crops are clear, so you can get around your ground easily. If it’s small enough, load each high seat on the back of a truck and take it back to base, where you can give it a thorough service, making any necessary repairs and perhaps giving it a new coat of paint or preservative. Any permanent high seats will have to be dealt with in situ, but once again you can drive right up with all the gear you need. 

Later on, the ground will be wet, and the new crops will restrict where you can go with a vehicle. While you’re at it, take the time to trim back any new growth that will restrict your view from the high seat. Do take extra care if you’re working up ladders and the like though, especially if you’re working alone. It’s all too easy to have a nasty fall.

Number 2 – Go back to basics 

While out foxing, use the old camouflage tricks that date back to the Middle Ages. In those days they didn’t dress head to toe in Realtree, but sometimes an archer with a longbow would want to break up the outline of his face.

Of course, he could smear mud on his skin, or fix leaves in a hat, but for instant and effective improvised camouflage he would simply break off a leafy branch and hold it in his teeth!

It’s a trick that can work equally well today if you find yourself caught out where your face is likely to give you away – it’s quick, and leaves both hands free to concentrate on taking the shot.  

More on foxing from Sporting Rifle

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