Changing times

Mike Powell reflects on the massive changes that have occurred in winter foxing in the last 50 years

It’s the time of year when the shooting world is at its busiest. The game season still has a way to go, with birds becoming wilier by the day, deer stalking has all species and both sexes available, and ‘lesser’ species such as rabbits and pigeons will be providing sport. One species, however, really comes into its own as winter’s grip tightens, and that is the fox. As I look back over the 60 years I have been after the top predator, I sometimes marvel at just how far things have progressed since I started out seriously after foxes, first for their skins and then, when that market dried up, as a fox controller.

Those early days were hard work, but with youth on our side, night after night walking the fields didn’t really present any problems. In fact, we loved it. We seldom saw a living soul, as the numbers of people doing what we did were very limited. We had, by modern-day standards, very primitive equipment, and relied heavily on hard-learned fieldcraft.

Mike still goes lamping today

I won’t bore readers by going over how we used to go about it, but needless to say the miles we covered on foot night after night kept us fit. We made good money from the pelts we got, but that eventually stopped, and I gradually moved into fox control, running a business directly aimed at farmers, who in those days would mainly lamb their ewes in the open. As there were a lot of foxes about, particularly on the cliff land bordering the sea, where much of the land we covered was situated, the lambs (and in some cases pigs) attracted foxes in quite large numbers.

One night we had been called to a farm not far from the sea, where both lambs and piglets had become prime targets for foxes. We had been told by the increasingly desperate farmer that there were foxes everywhere, and as shooters today will be aware, people’s estimation of vermin numbers on their land can get a bit enlarged. Not in this case! We entered a field where there were lines of pig arcs, and for a moment couldn’t work out whose eyes were gleaming in the light from the lamp. It was foxes. I think that first night we must have seen a couple of dozen on the land where both young pigs and lambs were being raised. Over that winter we accounted for approaching 300, which by those days’ standards was pretty unusual.

Powell senior and junior. Mike says his dad shot a fox just once!

As I said, the equipment we had was fairly primitive. Apart from the shotguns, everything else was homemade. How things have changed! Instead of using the most basic equipment you can think of, it seems to me that getting sorted for a night’s foxing today has become a bit of a work of art. Remembering everything now almost requires a checklist: rifle, moderator, rangefinder, IR for the night vision, thermal spotter, fully charged batteries, and if it’s going to be a long night, some spares just in case, ammunition, and if you are a shooter who has a selection of rifles used for a selection of quarry, make sure you have the correct cartridges.

I know this may sound basic, but believe me, I have known a variety of essential items to be left behind. One of my own embarrassing situations involved an easy job I undertook, which was to remove about half a dozen rabbits from an elderly couple’s garden. Visiting the garden in question, I made a point of choosing the best vantage point to shoot from that summer evening. Upon turning up, I was greeted by the couple, who proceeded to sit in their lounge that overlooked the garden to watch the ‘professional’ in action.

Getting ready didn’t take long. I was out of sight of the house (fortunately) and soon had the sticks set up. There was still about an hour of daylight left, and I had explained that I would be there until some time after dark. I was using my Air Arms S410 FAC air rifle – highly accurate, and ideal for the sort of job I was doing. Cocking the rifle, I reached for one of the 10-shot magazines. One thing you really do need when shooting rabbits is ammunition, and that was something I didn’t have. No magazines, no tin of pellets. Pride stopped me from confessing my highly unprofessional mistake, so for the next hour or so I remained hidden, and whenever I saw a rabbit I flapped my handkerchief at it to stop them appearing on the lawn. As darkness fell, I slunk away. I did return the following night and got the job done.

So make sure you have everything you need. To the previous list, add a torch, a knife and, should it be required, additional clothing. Today, of course, most shooters have a vehicle of some sort, so all the gear can be loaded up, but when I started out we had no such luxuries, and for several years managed on a pushbike, graduating to a motorbike and then a battered van. Out of necessity we travelled light! Waterproof clothing was pretty useless, so generally we just wore a jacket over a shirt. On our all-night outings we would be walking non-stop, and kept warm even in the depths of winter when in Devon we used to get snow. You just put up with rain.

A lamp doesn’t give you much of a field of view compared to the technological devices of today

The present day

Winter foxing today couldn’t be more different. For a start, I suspect very few people still cycle miles to the land they are shooting over, and even fewer struggle homeward with foxes strung on the crossbar to be skinned. The 4×4 has revolutionised shooting in so many ways. The copious quantities of gear mentioned above are easily transported to the venue together with sustaining beverages. The areas we covered on foot in a night can be covered in half an hour in a pickup.

We were single-minded in those far-off days – we wanted as many foxes as we could get in the five months or so that we shot them, then we left them alone. Today’s foxing world is a very different place. With night vision and thermal imagers, the creatures that walk at night no longer have the dark hours to themselves. We are privileged to be able to see into their world and hopefully learn from it. So many old ‘facts’, particularly where foxes are concerned, have been proved wrong by the all-seeing eyes of night vision and trail cameras.

There are still some shooters who follow the old ways using one of the amazing torchlights now available. I do this myself occasionally. However, after using thermal imagers, you realise just how limited your ability to see what’s out there really is in the narrow beam of the lamp.

Callum is the ‘next generation’ of foxer –
what advances will he be able to make the most of?

All these thoughts of what used to be were brought home the evening before I wrote this article. We had been advised that a limping fox had been seen hanging around some poultry. As darkness closed in, we arrived at the land in question and parked the Hilux up against the hedge. Being black, it merges well into the night – clearly foxes would be aware of it, but providing you follow a few rules, usually they ignore it. It was a messy, rainy night, and the thermal was struggling to cope. Despite claims that they work perfectly well in all conditions, one evening out in damp, misty, drizzly weather will soon tell you otherwise. However, we were warm and comfortable, and able to chat away unheard and unseen.

Suddenly, across the stubble a blurred image appeared; the Longbow instantly confirmed it was a fox, and that it was limping. My young apprentice foxer Callum, who seldom misses, waited until the fox paused, and the Sauer .223 dropped it on the spot. Later, when collected it turned out to have a nasty wound on the inside foreleg, which accounted for the limp. The range was 130 yards. The rain fell as we drove out and collected the fox, but we were dry and well satisfied with the evening’s work.

How different it would have been all those years ago. We would have spent a couple of hours just waiting in the field for the fox to arrive, soaked to the skin with just the occasional flash of the lamp to see if there were any eyes shining back at us. Then there would have been the stalk out to the fox, efforts made to call it in, or a combination of the two. Once shot, the carcase would have been carried back to the bikes slung under the crossbar, or in a game bag. Finally, a long ride home on dark, rainswept roads, then a few hours’ sleep. Compare that with the cosy interior of the 4×4, no walking involved, good company to be able to chat with and a 10-minute drive home.

I do look back sometimes and wonder how we did it. We were young, keen and fit, and were making good money. I can honestly say that I enjoyed those early years just as much as I still enjoy modern-day foxing, but the difference between the two is vast. Old men will say, “You don’t know how lucky you are” about anything, but in this case it probably is completely true.

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