Cautionary tail

We all sing the praises of thermal for fox shooting, but it’s also a remarkable tool if you’re interested in wildlife generally. I find it fascinating to see what’s out and about on the farm at night, and will happily sit and watch the rabbits, hares, field mice and much more. You can learn a great deal. For instance, I had never realised that tawny owls spend so much time on the ground – one shuffled past me the other night, intent on finding something tasty in the grass.

Thermal really highlights which animals are good at conserving heat in the cold, too. Our native deer are well insulated, so in cold weather they have a low heat signature. The non-native species such as muntjac, however, evolved in milder climates and don’t keep the heat in nearly so well. Their undersides glow brightly in the thermal, losing plenty of heat – no wonder they have to rush around eating so much. Incidentally, I’ve always disagreed with people who say that muntjac are solitary animals, and thermal backs me up on that one. On the other hand Chinese water deer come from a wet environment that can be very cold in the winter, and in consequence they have a heavy coat for minus temperatures that keeps them as warm as toast.

A blast on the mouth caller didn’t quite have the desired effect

Owls are remarkably well insulated and give out virtually no heat signature, until they turn to look at you and their eyes shine like little headlights. That’s the one part of the body they can’t insulate. Bats are fascinating too. They must have some way of regulating the blood flow – and hence heat loss – through their wings. In summer their wings show up hotter in the thermal viewer, but in winter they appear to lose very little heat. It makes sense that they would have evolved that way, but until we had thermal it would have taken a research scientist much time to find that out. Now we can see it for ourselves.

Anyway, enough of the wildlife – what about the foxes? We’ve had one or two drift on to the farm recently, to keep us on our toes. With the cold weather it’s nice to wrap up warm and sit in a high seat watching out across the fields. A high seat tends to work better for me at this time of year. The truck is all very well, but the new sown crops and any wet ground restricts where you can go, and the foxes are warier of a vehicle now. You do need the other sort of thermal, of course – I’m talking about thermal underwear!

I did have one from the truck the other day, and learned an interesting lesson about foxes too. It’s a spot near a footpath where I can’t leave a high seat, so I tend to go along in the truck well into the night, perhaps 1-2am when the footpath is certain to be deserted. I pulled up and started with a little mouse squeak in case there was something nearby. No response, so I moved on to the stainless steel Tenterfield and gave it a few calls.

Thanks to technology, simply observing and learning from wildlife is easier than ever

Soon I could see something moving way over in the distance, perhaps 600 or 700 yards away. It disappeared from view, then reappeared much closer, clearly a fox but acting cagey. It looked like it might head off in the direction of some houses so I didn’t have much time. I squeezed off a round at 200 yards and heard a strike but not the good solid thwack I wanted to hear. I quickly swapped to the thermal, knowing it would be easier to follow the fox with that rather than the digital scope.

I watched it trot off down the field, going back the way it had come but this time on the top of the bank so I could still see it. About 300 yards away I saw it stop and sit down. It stayed there for quite some while and then I heard it call: “Ow-ow,” and then again, “ow-ow.” As I watched, a few minutes later another fox came up from some way off, went up to ‘my’ fox, went off 30 yards to the left, then 30 yards to the right, sometimes just bustling around the stationary, possibly injured fox. To me it seemed clear that the first fox had sat down and called up its mate.

The new fox then moved away again about 60 yards to the right. Fascinating as it was to watch, I was here on a job of pest control, so I tried a mouse squeak to see what would happen. Sure enough, the new arrival picked up the sound from 300 yards and came trotting towards me. When it got to 75 yards it caught a round in the middle of the chest and that was that.

Robert achieves positive identification with the fox at 200 yards

I looked back for the first fox but it had gone, and I never did find it. I went back the next morning to search in the bottom of the ditches where the thermal cannot see so readily and it’s easier to use the MkI eyeball, but still did not find a body after covering the low ways of three fields. Perhaps my round had just nicked it without doing any real damage. It certainly seemed to move well, so I can’t have hit a leg. I will probably never know the full story, but it was fascinating behaviour to watch. The one I picked up was a dog, so I assume the first was the vixen.

I’ve had another interesting encounter with a fox recently – and that one too has eluded me too, so far at least. It must have had a close call with a car, or perhaps a poacher’s dog, as it’s missing its tail and walks hunched over with a bit of a limp. At night, through the thermal, the result is that it looks exactly like a muntjac. Colin the keeper told me he’d seen a fox without a tail but even so I failed to recognise it as a fox 200 yards away against a hedge. In fact at first I mistook it for a hare, as it was reaching up into the bushes and presumably eating the last of the blackberries. As it sat there with no tail, I looked hard, but it was then ignored.

Next time I looked in that direction, it was coming over the meadow across me to my right, looking just like a muntjac. It was only when it got closer than 100 yards I began to question what I was seeing. Then it struck me – that’ll be Colin’s tailless fox! But, in my surprise I over-reacted, moved the rifle too fast, and it was spooked. It began to move off, and without thinking I tried a little mouse squeak. Well, it’s clearly heard that one before, because it shifted into third gear, put its foot down and vanished into the maize cover crop.

Partial success: A dog fox on the ground, but the vixen was never located

Colin and his friend Matt went out the following evening and spotted the fox going into the same strip of cover. Then it emerged just a bit further along, but now Matt was ready and quickly loosed off a shot as it halted. There was a good solid thump from just under 200 yards and the fox dropped. They walked forward to pick it up and discovered that instead of shooting a fox that looks like a muntjac they’d shot an actual muntjac. The unlucky deer had emerged in the wrong place at the wrong time, pretending to be a tailless fox.

No harm done, and the muntjac went in the freezer. But the odd-looking fox is still out there. I think it may have moved over the boundary, but it will be back, and I’m intrigued to get it and discover what has caused its odd appearance. Perhaps I’ll never find out, but it’s mysteries like that that make fox shooting so fascinating.

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