Grouse keeper Andy Malcolm discusses denning tactics on the open hill when his precious feathered charges are most vulnerable to vulpine attention
On 15 April each year, I start to lose those few marbles I still possess. Keys and phones get mislaid. I go into rooms and forget what I went in for. I get tongue-tied and spout gibberish. It’s all down to sleep deprivation and the anti-social hours these floody boxes keep.
It’s den time and, traditionally, 15 April is when we start checking our sandholes. Any earlier than this and we might visit before the vixen has set up home. If that happens, all we do is disturb an empty hole. When she returns, she’ll realise the game is up and relocate, perhaps to a place we don’t know of.
Leave it too late, however, and we still won’t catch her in. The cubs will be big enough that she’ll be spending the day lying up away from the den. No, in an ideal world, we find her at home and the terrier bolts her to our shotguns. But the dog fox will still be at large, and that is normally where the rifle comes into play.
During the first few weeks of raising a litter, dog foxes tend to spend very little time at the den. Their visits are often confined to fleeting food-drops during the small hours. So while I’m enjoying a daytrip to the ideal world, let’s have the dog fox come to the den – and my crosshairs – at dusk.
Reality, I’m sad to say, usually bears little resemblance to this. For whatever reason, the foxes in these parts are usually super-sly. That means in practice, early in the season, our adult foxes rarely appear at the den before dark. Despite this, we’ll spend the last hours of daylight lying motionless within shot of the den. And if that act of pure optimism doesn’t work, the ‘stake-out’ continues by lamping – right through the night, if necessary. More often than not, we’ll spend a series of nights without so much as a flash of eyes. Sure, we’ll know there is a fox about, we’ll hear the alarm calls of grouse and curlew out in the darkness, but elusive is the key word. It’s at times like these I wonder how effective night vision gear would be. I guess the answer is: ‘Splash the cash and find out’.
If the vixen is still at large, her maternal instincts will usually get the better of her by the second or third night. If it’s the dog, we can often find ourselves pulling the jack-plug on him after five fruitless nights. But that’s not to say we’ve given up on him altogether. We have other tricks up our tweed sleeves.
Once we’ve dealt with our sandholes, our next step is to walk the ground. The places that get our attention first are the steep, rocky faces that foxes love and ankles hate. My six colleagues and I walk along these faces in a widely spaced line. We carry shotguns and let our terriers work the ground. Virtually every year this method locates a den in some small cairn or crack in a rock face that has never been known before. Furthermore, this process will often produce a solitary fox that’s chosen a heathery ledge for its bed.
My favourite position in the line is right at the top. When doing this, I’ll often carry both rifle and shotgun and keep well out in front. In such broken terrain, it’s easy for a fox to get round a corner or along a ledge without giving the lads on the face the chance of a shot. If that happens, the rifleman suddenly finds himself drinking alone in the Last Chance Saloon. In all likelihood it will be a steep downhill shot at a moving target taken from some lofty perch. Better make that a double, bartender.
We will end up walking most of the 50,000 acres that make up this estate. Yes, there are areas without any nooks that can be used for a den. They might not get looked over – but that doesn’t mean they are overlooked. They’ll certainly come under scrutiny when it comes to our third tactic: the early morning wait.
As spring progresses to summer, foxes are hit by a double whammy. Firstly, as the cubs grow they need more and more food. Secondly, the hours of darkness get less and less. By the time we reach midsummer, even those foxes without young – and those that possibly eluded us at dens – have only four hours of darkness to ply their trade.
The nub of this is that most foxes are forced into being active in the evenings and mornings. And so, therefore, are we. The theory is simplicity itself: get yourself up onto a hilltop, spy until you see a fox, and go and shoot the blighter. As ever, putting theory into practice is anything but straightforward.
We begin our early morning ambushes from the start of the season. We’re out whenever we have a clear, bright morning. If we’ve spent the night fruitlessly staking out a den, we’ll often head up to a vantage point at daybreak. From there we might just pick up our difficult customer heading off to its daytime hideaway.
Initially, these ‘dawn raids’ are no great hardship. We start by spying our ‘in by’ ground. It might only take a 20-minute hop in the Land Rover to get from vestibule to viewpoint. However, as the season progresses, daybreak gets earlier and earlier and our ‘commutes’ get longer and longer. Eventually, it gets to the point where we have to get up an hour before we go to bed. When we reach this stage, we’ll often sleep out on the hill.
If we’re going to do this, we head out well before last light. There is always the chance of picking up a fox in the evening. However, the sheer scale of the ground is often a major hurdle. Many is the keeper who has eventually arrived, panting and sweaty, at Tod’s last known location only to find he’s run out of light. To add injury to insult, that sweat will also make for an uncomfortable night once he’s stumbled back to base.
I far prefer the mornings. Sunrise in the hills on a tranquil morning can be stunning – if you’re not already stunned by your 3am alarm. But a breathtaking dawn isn’t the only incentive to lumber from your slumbers. You’ve also got the anticipation of the most challenging form of hunting that I know – stalking a fox on the open hill in daylight.
For an estate like this, the fox tops our ‘most wanted’ list by a long way. The damage they can do to our grouse stocks can be devastating, especially during the breeding season. Every time I stalk a fox I’m aware of this fact. I’m also acutely aware of how many man-hours it takes to get a fox into my crosshairs. All this, along with the simple truth that the fox is the most artful, sneakiest adversary I know, means my heart is always thumping when I’m after one. I wouldn’t want it any other way.