Clearing up Charlie

As Robert Bucknell and auction winner Howard Stott grab their thermal imagers and head out for a night’s foxing, Robert explains that is in fact possible to clear up a troublesome fox population permanently

‘There’s no point in trying to kill all the foxes because nature abhors a vacuum and others will simply move in to fill the gap’. So goes the antis’ mantra – but it’s simply not true, as I have proved on my Essex farm this year.

We’re talking about a block of about 3,000 acres. I farm around 1,000 acres in the middle and liaise closely with neighbouring farmers and keepers over the surrounding 2,000 acres. For years we have hit the foxes hard by every (legal) means available. That has included allowing through the hunt, trapping, snaring and, of course, shooting them with the aid of a lamp and, more recently, night vision and thermal tools.

For years we fought a rearguard action, chipping away at a fox population that never seemed to diminish. But now, this year for the first time, we appear to have won – at least for the time being. I can confidently say that the fox population across those 3,000 acres is down to the odd one or two that may wander over the boundary once in a while. In our little patch of Essex, Vulpes vulpes is pretty much extinct. Nobody tell the RSPB, for goodness sake, or it’ll be launching a campaign to re-wild the place and reintroduce the fox!


How did I do it?

So what has changed? How is it that the fox hitherto managed to maintain a strong presence on the farm with everyone doing their best to eradicate it and yet me, with a handful of keepers and mates, have now effectively wiped it out? The reason, in my view, is night vision – but especially thermal, pure and simple. Thermal viewers and, more recently, thermal riflescopes have given us a massive edge. No longer do we have to give ourselves away with lights and calls that any wily fox can learn to steer clear of. But why is thermal night vision so deadly? In essence, it’s the speed at which you can pick out the fox with a viewer before swapping, in the blink of an eye, to the rifle. The ‘acquire-identify-safety check-shoot’ process can be as quick as that. 


With thermal, you get positive ID and a shooting optic in one – a huge advantage

It’s usually pretty clear if a fox is living in a given area; the signs are there if you know how to interpret them. You don’t need to track it down, or draw it towards you, with calls and whistles. Just arrange a suitable spot where you can sit and wait, and lay bait over a few days. When you’re ready, and the weather conditions are in your favour, simply settle down with the thermal and wait for Mr Fox to pass by. He has to eat and, like any general predator, will opt for the lowest-hanging fruit – the meal that offers the best return for the least effort.

Provided you are able to sit still for a few hours and resist the temptation to phone your friends, shuffle or cough loudly, sooner or later your quarry will appear. When it does there is no need to give your position away by shining a light. Just edge the rifle into position and bang!

This means we can deal with even the oldest and wariest foxes relatively – and I do mean relatively – easily. In years gone by, these ‘difficult’ foxes would have evaded us with their cunning. Now, with thermal, they can be picked off like the rest. In fact, it can only be evident how old a fox is once you pick it up.

Howard gets in place for an initial high seat vigil before switching to vehicular assault

I can only guess the effect this may have on our wildlife and wild game populations. But the wild broods look good and we will know more after the first day’s shooting. How long before wandering foxes move in to what may look like an attractive empty territory only time will tell, but it will be interesting to observe and report back.

Putting it into practice

This dearth of foxes presented me with an interesting problem when the time came to host the winner of Sporting Rifle’s latest Save the Rhino auction. Howard Stott had generously stumped up a sizeable sum for the privilege of foxing with me, the money supporting the valuable work performed by the Save the Rhino team in Africa. All I had to do was put him in front of a few foxes… except we’d already shot them all.

Thermal recon: Robert spots while Howard does the business behind the rifle

In the end we didn’t do too bad. We headed to a spot a few miles down the road – not in my core foxing area, but I have permission to shoot there and it offered our best chance of seeing a fox or two. Sure enough it wasn’t long before we spotted one and Howard knocked that one down at 200 yards with few dramas – a good start.

Then, 350 yards away, we spotted another, which responded to a mouse squeak. I was watching in the thermal viewer as I called, and it got bigger and bigger until I began to think it would soon jump in the back and steal our sandwiches. “Put the lamp on,” whispered Howard. He had pulled the trigger but his rifle had made a light strike on the .243 round, which had refused to go off. He racked the bolt to load a fresh round and the IR lamp atop his tubed night vision scope promptly died – flat battery. Meanwhile, the fox was still trotting in and plonked itself in some long grass 30 yards away staring at us. In my thermal I could make out the tips of its ears, so there was little chance of Howard shooting it. Eventually foxy got bored and wandered off.

No foxes on the ground? Robert and Howard managed to account for three

With Howard grabbing the spare rifle he’d wisely put in the cab, we scoured the best part of 2,000 acres with the lamp and saw nothing more. However, there was one last spot to try at the far end of the next farm. It was near some houses and a public footpath, but if you knew the ground well it could be negotiated safely and I knew of reports of an old dog fox living out there. As we left the village I caught a flash of eyes in the first field so we swung into the next gateway. I was told that this fox had always run from lamps, allowing him to live so long. But with us both swapping to thermal as soon as we caught the eye flash he just sat there, 170 yards out in the field. He looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world until suddenly it hit him – Howard’s .243 bullet that is. Sure enough, he proved to be a very old 18lb dog who had managed very nicely by covertly ferreting out scraps at the back of the houses.

That was almost it. But only another 300 yards down the road on the way back an itinerant fox crossed the road ahead of us. We pulled in and I pointed Howard in the right direction. Seconds later, bang, and an over-yeared vixen was in the bag.

Four foxes seen, three down and one away. Not a bad outing for someone who’s shot his core land clean of the animals.

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