Sporting sage Andy Lovel changes tack and swaps his intended quarry from roebuck to fox on a public relations exercise to keep a worried shepherd on side north of the border
I was away on one of my stalking jaunts north of Hadrian’s Wall across lands once roamed by the infamous Border Reivers. This area covers 2,500 acres of forestry and moorland that runs down to a vast valley bottom predominantly grazed by sheep.
This particular weekend was really a bid to compile a census of the deer population. My fellow syndicate members and I have found the best way to achieve this annual count is with the aid of night vision combined with a number of trail cameras. However, this year I had a thermal imager on test: the Guide IR. This fantastic piece of kit had more than proved its worth on the low-ground and I was keen to give it a go on the hill. That said, I was also here to do a bit of stalking, and, as the freezer was rapidly becoming devoid of red meat, I was keen to grass a beast first. The weekend started slowly, and having stalked the south side without success, I decided to cross the river and stalk the north side during the evening.
I stopped en route to speak to the resident shepherd, who seems to be about at all hours. At 70 years old, he is as fit and keen as a man half his age. Pleasantries were exchanged and the conversation soon got round to foxes. As one would expect, he hates them with a vengeance, and was experiencing a lot of lamb losses. He asked if it would it be possible for me to do something about it. I certainly could, so I left him with a firm promise to deal with the culprit and turned about to head back to the vehicle.
It was now late afternoon as I climbed into the Hilux and made my way up the winding forest road. Pulling up, I checked two trail cams on the moor edge where the road petered out. These trail cams are dotted about the estate and help me to get an idea of numbers and sex ratio and make decisions on how best to stalk the ground. The snap shots revealed two roe does, a nice six-point buck and a fox regularly passing by. When I say regular I mean every day – the actual time recorded was rather irregular. Despite the absence of a more defined time pattern, I decided to set up an ambush.
I positioned the pick-up along the forest edge, about 100 yards from a ride exit onto the open hill. It was a warm, pleasant evening, made all the better by the relaxing sound of displaying blackcock nearby, their behaviour no doubt brought on by the balmy weather. The buck captured on camera made a fleeting visit, but I passed him by in favour of a chance at my main quarry.
Day turned into dusk and even my top-quality optics started to struggle. It was time to attach my Archer NV unit on to the back of the Kahles scope, making it instantly usable in total darkness. Although I had now set my stall out for fox only, my original intention was for roe. I was using my .222 bull pup as in Scotland it is legal to use this calibre on roe. I have always found that this is an accurate and pleasant cartridge to shoot, and cannot understand why the law is not the same south of the border.
The Archer has been a godsend for our deer census work and is incredibly versatile as it turns any day scope into night vision using a bayonet fitting. The Guide IR thermal imager, meanwhile, is amazing, revealing wildlife activity you would never normally see. I amused myself watching the abundant vole population scurrying through the long grass. To my immediate right, the sheep I was endeavouring to protect were easily visible through the thermal imager to a fair distance. It was entertaining and interesting to observe how the sheep’s head and legs shone brightly, yet their insulated bodies gave little heat signature away.
I could see a roe in the tree line well over 100 yards away with the Guide, but looking through the NV revealed only trees. It wasn’t until it left the safety of cover that the night vision actually picked it up. For the next few hours everything was quiet apart from the occasional vocals of a male tawny owl lower down in the valley.
With another sweep of the Guide, I spotted a fox-sized blob about 300 yards into the sheep field and heading my way. Mounting the rifle, I tracked its progress across the field, making its way towards one of my trail cameras. I was determined that this lamb-killing vulpine would only get on film once more, and that would be with me holding it by the scruff of its neck.
A single squeak from me and it stopped to stare in my direction. The half second the fox took deciding its next course of action was all that I needed. The feather-light recoil of my moderated .222 allowed me to observe everything that followed. Pleasingly, the fox was standing broadside, so I aimed for the middle of its chest and pressed the bull pup’s button trigger. The satisfying sound of the bullet strike saw the menace drop on the spot with legs kicking and tail flicking wildly.
It was a job well done, and one that would have been a great deal harder without the use of the thermal imager and the NV. But one of the downsides of having kit that works 24 hours a day is that my body struggles to keep up with it. As daylight wasn’t far away, I had to make the decision of whether to wait for the new day and a chance at the roe buck or to retire and get some badly needed sleep. In reality it was a foregone conclusion: I decided to forgo what the body cried out for and began a new vigil for a six-point roebuck in the rapidly approaching dawn.