For several years I have been using a variety of night vision equipment. I find this is an intriguing insight into the way nocturnal wildlife carries on when it is undisturbed. To increase one’s knowledge, it is sometimes better to watch than shoot.
For most of my life I did the latter, particularly where foxes were concerned, and while this worked well in the circumstances and in doing so I did learn a bit about the quarry, in retrospect the knowledge was pretty shallow.
For example, when using conventional lamping methods, in most cases by the time the fox is in the lamp it is well aware that something is up. From then on in there are two ways of dealing with it: hot pursuit or fieldcraft. As far as I can see there is little connection between the two. Belting across the fields with a driver, a lamp man and a shooter does take a certain amount of knowledge as to where obstacles may be and the best way to gain access to the next field. But the fox is a target, one that hopefully will stop long enough for a safe shot with the rifle.
Don’t misunderstand me – I have done a lot of this myself over the years. But I also remember shooting foxes for their skins commercially with a shotgun, where fieldcraft was essential. My knowledge of a fox’s behaviour after dark was extremely limited – I knew how it would react to a lamp and how to get close enough to be sure of a kill with the 12-bore and BBs, but of the animal’s general behaviour, my knowledge was skimpy at best.
This state of affairs continued right up to the point when I was first asked to test some night vision equipment. It soon became apparent that what foxes, and to a degree rabbits, did when they felt comfortable in their own environment had little to do with what I had occasionally imagined. To start with I operated much as I had when lamping in the conventional manner, walking the fields and spotting with the NV. This worked to a degree, but I learned early on that more often than not the fox I spotted was aware I was around. This is something that became more and more apparent the more I used the new technology. Gradually I found I could change tactics and get the same results – with more financial expenditure (much more) but with less effort.
There are so many little things you pick up about foxes when you resist the temptation to pull the trigger, at least for a while. For example, in the past I always aimed to start out with the lamp during the winter months about nine or 10 at night – by then, foxes would be up and about. By using static positions and waiting, I soon learned that this is a fallacy. In winter, most troublesome foxes I deal with are shot before 7pm. As soon as darkness falls, they are off – after all it is their breakfast time and it has been a good 12 hours since their last meal.
The ‘static’ method of foxing requires two things to be really successful: patience and knowledge of fox movement. Patience, I suspect, is something that comes with age. When I was young I spent countless nights out, walking equally countless miles after foxes. We shot a lot but used up vast quantities of energy – willingly I admit – doing what we loved. I still do what I love, but I spend a lot less time doing it and get much the same results. Waiting, though, does require patience and a lot of it. I mentioned knowledge of your ground. Time spent just walking your land looking for runs, scats, or signs of kills will give you a feel of where you would go if you were a fox. Eventually you will see areas a little nearer to how a fox possibly sees them.
One other factor that receives a great deal of comment is calling the fox. There are a few people endowed with an innate skill to call foxes in almost at will. But these are rare birds indeed; most mere mortals rely on learned skills, mostly trial and error with the emphasis on the latter. Why should calling in foxes be so problematic? My take on this is that foxes, like us, are individuals and are influenced by factors, many of which are not understood by us humans.
To emphasise this, I remember going after a particular fox on a foul night with intermittent rain and a bit of mist about – not ideal for night vision use. Parking up the 4×4 against the top hedge of a field I knew the predator used, I settled down to wait. At about 7pm a fox appeared as if from nowhere and crossed the field below me a fair distance away. I tried the ever faithful WAM caller, watching all the time through the NV. Absolutely no reaction. Next was the Best Fox Call – same result. I also had my reliable Mini Colibri and let fly with three different calls: rabbit distress, vixen scream and mating vixen. Through all this the fox never once looked up, concentrating on picking up worms and other invertebrates.
I tired of the test and, putting the crosshairs on the chest, dropped what turned out to be a stocky vixen (no wonder the vixen calls didn’t work). She was just over 200 yards out and the .223 Hornady Superformance 53-grain ammo did its usual grand job.
So what did I learn from this particular exercise? Precious little to be honest, except showing that calling foxes is an imprecise science. All the calls I tried on the vixen have worked for me in the past, but on this occasion the fox just wasn’t interested. Like all fox shooters I have had them come in to a call of one sort or another flat out and had to pull them up with a whistle or shout. Equally, I have had foxes come to a particular call and pay the price, but on the same night, with the same call, another has turned tail and fled.
Calling, particularly at mating time and when cubs are first out hunting, can be lethal, although the first of these situations needs far more experimentation with fox calls. Sometimes foxes react very differently from the way we would expect. With digital callers, I suspect that the reproduction in the way the speaker actually delivers the sound has a bearing on how the fox reacts. It is not uncommon, when watching foxes going about their business, to see their reaction when a real rabbit is caught either by a fox or a stoat. The ensuing scream gets an instant reaction from any fox within earshot. No hesitating – they are there in seconds, so clearly they can detect differences in the sounds they hear.
We have little idea of what a fox’s ears transmit to its brain. Certainly any animal that can hear a mouse squeak from around 100 yards away doesn’t hear sounds the same as we do. All I suggest is that if you have the opportunity to watch foxes for a while, particularly at night, try a few calls and just watch the reaction they get. Be warned, though, you need to be prepared as sooner or later one will come in full tilt and observing will have to be put on the back burner.
After many years of pursuing the fox, I would say I do know more now than I did all those years ago when shooting them as a means of income. However, it is only since the advent of night vision (and a certain lack of energy) that I have really been able to learn more about the fox. Fifty years ago I wouldn’t have spent hours in a high seat, or anywhere else for that matter, waiting for a fox. There was no NV and I certainly didn’t have a 4×4 then, so waiting was only an occasional option. Now this is generally the way I do it – I survey the land quite carefully to see the fox signs, try to put myself in their situation and exploit this knowledge to make life easier for me. Mike Powell