Close encounters of the vulpine kind

With a fox to take care of in a tricky close-up situation between houses and smallholdings, Mike Powell finds that the .22 Hornet is the calibre for the job.

April arrived and with it, as always, came the increase in fox activity in and around the local farms and smallholdings. As I suspected, this activity was on a larger scale than in previous years owing to the lack of rabbits, which in most of the land I cover have all but disappeared.

True, there has been an increase in the number of rabbits as the first young appeared spotted through the thermal, but it was exactly the same last year when they appeared to be making a comeback only to have their numbers decimated once again by the three-pronged attack of the two VHD viruses together with the ever-present myxi.

With the arrival of the cubs, clearly the adults have to find other sources of food, so anyone with poultry or lambs has been receiving a lot of unwanted attention. I wrote an article not long ago on a holding that was next to a road where we were able to sort out the problem.

But as always on this particular spot it was inevitable that other foxes would soon fill the gap, and so it turned out to be. After the usual call requesting help, we had a successful evening, taking three foxes in short order and assumed that for the time being all would remain quiet. Of course, it wasn’t so! Returning the following morning after we had had the three, the owner said he didn’t think any of the foxes we had left was the one he had seen coming in across the road.

In fact, he took us down to show where the fox was coming through the hedge, and there was a pile of fresh duck feathers from a very recent kill. So, back to the drawing board.

All is quiet for the time being, but fox predation is a serious issue here

That evening saw Callum and I arriving at the same hut we had used for the previous vigil and setting up the camo net ready for the usual wait. I was using the .22 Hornet – the ideal tool for close range work, particularly in noise-sensitive areas. For a change I was doing the shooting and the lad was spotting.

While I have complete faith in his abilities, the particular spot where we were had so many safety considerations to take into account, I really couldn’t risk an accident. We had only been in position for about 10 minutes and the light was fading fast when Callum spotted a shape in the road hedge only about 10 yards from a group of ducks that had their necks stretched up, staring towards what was we guessed was the fox.

Sure enough, a head was pushed through the long grass bordering the hedge, but almost immediately reversed and disappeared. Moments later it reappeared further down the stream, then ran alongside the hedge but was shielded by clumps of pampas grass and other shrubs that had been planted as the stream formed part of the owner’s garden.

Interestingly, the owner could be seen not more than 20 or 30 yards further on, blissfully unaware that the very fox that had been giving him so much trouble was actively hunting just yards away from him. A small grass paddock with a step in it, a bit like one of those ‘haha’ arrangements you see at stately homes, ran next to the planted area, and it wasn’t long before my spotter whispered that he could see the fox coming out from behind the clumps of pampas grass.

All this took place less than 40 yards from where we stood behind the camo netting. Through the Archer I could clearly see the back of the fox’s head one moment, then next a full side-on target – in theory an unmissable shot. In preparation for the evening’s work I had checked the zero on the Hornet so I knew exactly where it was shooting at close range.

Plenty of cover for the fox to approach

There was the fox, the rifle was spot on and I was ready. The problem was it was moving directly in line with the smallholder, then with a roadside cottage, then the road itself and finally the smallholder’s bungalow. I did say there were safety concerns, didn’t I?

This state of affairs carried on for almost half an hour, with the fox working the stream, the bushes and the margins on the paddock all within a very small area. On a couple of occasions it stared fixedly in our direction, but with face veils in position and keeping absolutely still, we were not spotted.

Clearly scent was not a problem as this fox, like so many these days, had spent most of its life in proximity to humans, and watching its complete indifference to the presence of the owner who at one point appeared just a few yards away was a revealing exercise in itself.

From what we could see through the thermal spotter, though it kept clear of the person who was going about the nightly chore of shutting his birds in, it was apparently totally unconcerned. Clearly this fox had been there before and knew exactly what it was doing.

All this was quite exciting and not at all the usual situation. The biggest worry I had was that the opportunity to remove this fox, which had been causing real problems, could well slip away and we would be back to square one. Eventually Callum whispered that the fox was behind the bank and he had lost track of it.

Moments passed, then he spotted it through the thermal and said it was beside one of the couple of large pigs that live in the adjoining field. As those who use the same system as we do – thermal spotter and NV on the rifle – will know, it’s much easier to find the fox with the thermal than with the NV as the latter has a much restricted field of view.

Seconds later I managed to find the pig in the NV, but Callum through the spotter could pick up the infrared from the Dragonfly IR illuminator on top of my Archer and told me I had the wrong pig! By then the fox had moved towards us and was going away up the field, shielded from me by overhanging trees. Minutes passed and although Callum could track it with the thermal, I couldn’t see the fox through the NV.

Fox eye view’ of Mike’s position

All at once the fox turned and trotted smartly across the open hillside, finally in full view. I gave it the usual shout, it paused and looked back, and the ever-reliable Hornet did the job. From start to finish the whole operation had taken almost three quarters of an hour, during which time the fox had been within 30 or 40 yards of us.

The final shot, though, was taken at about 100 yards using Winchester 46gn jacketed hollow-point ammunition. This is a much heavier bullet than I normally use but I have found it an extremely efficient short-range (150 yards or less) fox round. Its lower velocity – 2880fps compared with the usual 35gn at 3100fps – and the soft hollow point certainly causes more shock on impact, and is now my choice when using the Hornet.

The owner of the land had heard the shot and came out to see the result. Though I had no doubts about it being the fox that had been plaguing him, he instantly recognised it as he had seen it several times. It had been a really interesting and exciting evening when once more, thanks to modern night vision, more information had been gleaned about fox behaviour.

Mike stays quiet and still on a vigil with the Hornet

Foxes today, particularly those living in relative proximity to humans, are far less wary than they were years ago. Certainly the sight, scent and sound of humans no longer sends every fox heading for the horizon as it used to. That’s all well and good for the fox shooter, but real problems can arise when foxes have been encouraged to interact with us by misguided people feeding them (I exclude bait points!)

For those who keep poultry and other birds, that’s bad news indeed. Today there is a vast range of night vision products available and I have been fortunate enough to be able to try many of them out.

In my own case I have yet to find a better combination for night fox work than a thermal spotter and a decent night vision scope and IR. This combination has served me well for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

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