Afraid of the Light

MIKE’S TOP TIP Foxes aren’t scared of lamp light… they’re scared of you!

When the midsummer growth obscures much of the countryside, I spend a substantial amount of time sitting out and waiting for the quarry species to come to me.

Not only is this a rather pleasant way to spend long summer evenings, but it usually pays off where both rabbits and the odd troublesome fox are concerned. It suits the ageing shooter, and gives me time to think about what I can do to improve my techniques using the lessons I have learned over very many years of pursuing foxes.

Although it is the middle of summer, my thoughts almost always stray to night shooting because this is what I have done continuously throughout my life. The one question that crops up time and time again in magazines, on the web and whenever fox shooters meet, is the old perennial about that ‘lamp shy’ fox.

From my earliest days going after foxes using rudimentary equipment, I too used to go on about foxes that would turn tail and run at the first glimpse of a lamp. Back then I had no doubt in my mind that they were lamp shy. But as the years have passed and so much has changed in the way of life in the countryside and the growing numbers of people who shoot foxes, my views on lamp shyness have undergone radical changes.

It goes without saying that with anything to do with wildlife, and possibly foxes in particular, there will always be exceptions to the rule. There will be foxes that are scared by a lamp, particularly in areas where lights at night are few and far between. However, these areas are dwindling at an alarming rate and I am leaving out these havens as I suspect they are in a minority.

Firstly, why should a fox be scared of lights at night? In this day and age, lights are everywhere. Some areas are even setting up reserves where no lights are allowed so that we humans can look at the stars. A fox on his nocturnal travels is beset with human-induced lights: street lights (even in villages), security lights, vehicular lights. These are not only constant on the roads, but in the countryside itself as farm equipment works late into the night with headlamps blazing, and, of course, the odd shooter out there in the 4×4 or pickup with lamp flashing here, there and everywhere.

NV has shown Mike that foxes are usually aware of shooters even before they spot the lamp

Why, then, should the average fox worry about something that has become a normal part of his nocturnal wanderings? I rather tenuously link this to pigeon shooting. I normally park about 150 yards away, as it saves walking, and am often asked, “Why don’t you move your 4×4 further away from the hide and decoys?” My response to this is that pigeons fly over and see infinitely more vehicles every day of their lives than we do, many of which are parked very close to them when they roost or feed, so why should they worry about one more?

A few years back, I was talking to a very experienced pigeon shooter on a summer evening as we were sitting on the rear of his vehicle. Pigeons were dropping in within 30 yards of us. In a similar way, I do much of my fox control while parked up in my 4×4, and for 95 per cent of the time foxes totally ignore it.

No, I don’t think that foxes are shy, wary (call it what you will) of lights – it’s the thing that holds them that’s the problem. Foxes are not unintelligent creatures, and one thing they are really good at is adapting to changing circumstances. I have a zoo near me with a considerable numbers of wild foxes that inhabit the grounds and enclosures. During the hours that the place is open to the public, they will totally ignore the crowds of people who pass within a few yards of them. In fact, they have become a bit of a feature.

Likewise, there are foxes in my own village that will lie out in the sun within yards of the local primary school playground with the din that only 50 or 60 small children can create. They take absolutely no notice of them at all. However, as soon as the zoo and the school close, the whole demeanour of the foxes changes and they are back on alert. It is their ability to be able to separate normal from dangerous that enables this master predator to not only to survive but to thrive.

All those years ago when we shot lots of foxes for their skins with shotgun and lamp, we got very good at working out how to get within 30 or 40 yards of our fox – we had to or there would be no money coming in. Yes, we had some foxes that were clearly brighter than others in exactly the same way as rabbits. By the end of the winter, the rabbits that were left were the crafty ones and it was the same with the foxes. The really wary ones were still out there and we had to raise our game to match theirs.

Wild animals that live on their wits to survive, let alone thrive and increase their numbers, develop skills that we have little conception of. Foxes are blessed with senses that we can see to a degree in our own working dogs, but even man’s best friend is, in many cases, losing its senses compared to its wild brethren.

When we set out after a fox in our off road vehicles, foxes are clearly fully aware we are there. They will, until pressed, largely ignore us in much the same way rabbits in a field will apparently ignore a fox passing through. However, they will keep a watchful eye on it and, should its demeanour change, they will sheer off. Still not scattering willy nilly, they will wait until an attack is pressed home to get an idea of exactly what is going on.

Whether you use technology or fieldcraft, the end result for a good shooter is much the same

This applies to large prey species too. Just watch programs on Africa where, for instance, the hunted will watch lions even at quite close range waiting to see exactly when and from where the charge will come. Sadly, for many of these the lions are one step ahead and will often wait in ambush. So it is with the fox. Although usually the hunter, it is also the prey when man is about, especially at night.

The advent of night vision, particularly thermal imagers, has given us the chance to look into the night-time world of the fox. By watching and not always shooting, I found that a great many of the things I had assumed for years to be correct were wrong. I have watched others through my NV as they track a fox with their lamps and what is abundantly clear is that in virtually every case the fox is well aware of the shooter’s presence – usually long before the shooter knows the fox is there.

From then on it is very much like the rabbit/zebra scenario: the fox is aware he has company but doesn’t wish to commit himself until he knows exactly where the best escape route lies. His three main senses will come into play. He may have heard the intruder, or smelt him, or even seen him, and for the fox the situation is relatively under control. If it’s a very wary or nervous individual, it may well leg it immediately – possibly without the hunter ever having seen it.

However (and this is where the lamp shy thing comes in), if the fox has heard or smelt the intruder, it will wait until it gets specific confirmation of where the danger lies. Should that confirmation be visual (it sees the person, or has a light shone in its eyes), it will be off. I don’t think it matters if it’s been shot at before or not, although clearly that doesn’t help.

How can we, if we wish to remove that fox, get on terms and avoid losing the chance? Clearly, you need to remove the fact that the fox knows you are there in the first place. This can be achieved by honing your fieldcraft skills, showing no light, working with the wind or buying some decent night vision. All are rewarding when they succeed. But do remember it is not necessarily the light the fox is scared of – it’s you. As far as possible, take yourself out of the equation.

I have found many, many times that just putting a light on a fox won’t make it run (not immediately, anyway). I know that, when waiting out at night and using night vision, if the first thing the selected fox becomes aware of is a light going on, it will stand for a moment to assess the situation. This will give the opportunity you are after.

If you feel uneasy about using technology to give you an edge, improve your fieldcraft skills. It takes time, but it works. Then you can really call yourself a true fox shooter. Mike Powell

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