Feeling the Heat

MIKE’S TOP TIP Speak to people who live around your shooting areas to gain info on fox movements

I never think of summer as the best foxing time. Lush growth covers many runs, and they are often so overgrown that it is difficult to spot where foxes are running.

Cubs are active by then – in fact I recall years when cubs in some areas were above ground as early as mid- to late-March. I have noticed that during the period the cubs are actually being born, fox activity seems to decrease noticeably. In my area, which has a high population, if nothing much is seen of any foxes I’m reminded of the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’. All of a sudden foxes are on the move again, providing for the litters. Business as usual.

By June and July many of these cubs are beginning to take the first steps in their hunting lives. By now the vixen will have been taking live prey back to the den for the cubs to practise and hone the killing skills on which their lives will depend.

I remember as a lad, when out for an early morning walk around with the gun (a new Greener GP 12), I heard a lot of chicken noise coming from the nearby farmyard. I then saw a fox crossing the field with a chicken in its mouth. Keeping still in the shelter of the hedge, I watched as it came closer. When it was in range I let go at it. The fox rolled over as expected. More surprising was the fact that the chicken got up, ran straight at me and stopped at my feet. This was one lucky hen – not only had it survived the fox attack and a load of number fives, but it had avoided being slowly killed by the young cubs.

Mike sets his traps by putting them in a black bin liner to block out the light

Young rabbits and voles are the usual training aids used by the vixen, with larger prey coming later as training progresses. Many of the pheasant wings and rabbit legs found in close proximity to the earths are the leftovers of the cubs learning to kill. Incidentally, that Greener taught me a lesson. I had been out with it on a wet day and had left it in the hall. For some reason I didn’t use it for a week, and when I did, the inside of the barrel was rusted. After strenuous cleaning most of it came out, but sadly there were some rust marks I couldn’t get rid of. I was upset, and have never since failed to clean any gun after use.

As summer progresses, the vixen will start taking the cubs with her on short hunting trips. As darkness starts to fall in the late evening, it is not uncommon to hear the cubs bickering among themselves over a kill. Very often, a quick but stealthy approach can give you a chance at them.

When the cubs reach five months, they will be hunting on their own but sticking close to home. It is at that time that they can really be a menace, particularly to the gamekeeper. Early poults will already be going ‘over the top’ of the release pens and are really vulnerable. Mature foxes will be after them, of course, but they are wary and will soon disappear if threatened. The adolescent cubs have not yet learned to be scared of humans, particularly if they were reared near habitation, so if given the chance they will take poults indiscriminately.

One method I have had some success with is cage trapping the cubs. I have found over the years that it is impossible to cage trap adult foxes, except around yards and buildings where they have become used to enclosed areas, wire netting and corrugated iron. Cubs, however, haven’t yet learned these skills and are insatiably curious. I have known of cases where cubs have been caught in Kania traps designed to kill squirrels. There are also reports every year of cubs getting caught in Larsen traps set for magpies.

A couple of years ago I caught a couple of cubs in live-catch rabbit traps. These are simple cage traps activated by a step-on plate. I put the traps in a black bin liner to exclude all the light except for the entrance, then covered the traps in litter, leaves and twigs so the finished set is just an inviting hole in the undergrowth. Bait these traps with dog or cat food – tuna is a good choice – or even peanut butter. The problem with the latter is that it will attract badgers, which will soon wreck the set.

Kania traps will occasionally take small cubs

Obviously all traps need to be checked every day in accordance with the law; I intend to try this system on a regular basis once the poults are in situ. The other, more obvious way of clearing up a few cubs is by calling. Whereas old foxes can be difficult to call, cubs in their early hunting days will come readily.

I have found there is not a lot of point in the more sophisticated callers at this time of year – straightforward squeal-type calls such as the WAM will generally give results. Young cubs hunting on their own for the first few times will respond better to ‘small’ calls such as mouse squeaks and young rabbit squeals, as these will be the sounds they have heard more than anything else in their early training days. Make the most of these early days, as their naïve period soon passes.

In the long, warm summer evenings, waiting for the cubs can show results. Ideally you need to know where the earth is located. This is not too difficult if you are familiar with your ground – watching from high ground or high seat will often reveal the travels of the old foxes. This can be done at any time of day, as the parents are constantly on the move to provide food for the hungry youngsters.

When the cubs begin to make short hunting trips on their own, I am happy to take out the vixen. At this point, the cubs will be able to make their own way in life if they get the chance. They may struggle a bit for food, but observation has shown that once they are starting to hunt on their own, they are capable of catching small items such as beetles, many of the larger insects, worms and very young rabbits. With this, they soon develop their hunting skills and become efficient predators.

Cubs will soon turn into marauding adults and are best dealt with early at the den

If you have a good rapport with the owners of the land you shoot over, ask them to report any sightings of cubs. Every year I get information on the whereabouts of litters. One of my best ‘spies’ is the local postman. Last year he reported no fewer than six litters he had spotted on his rounds. Information like this is invaluable and can save huge amounts of time.

One of the postie’s sightings proved particularly valuable. A good friend in the village had been plagued by a fox taking hens throughout the year. It was nothing sustained – just a visit every couple of weeks. This type of predation is probably the hardest to deal with as there is no tangible pattern to it. With patience and the help of some modern technology, in particular stealth cameras, regular foxes can usually be sorted in a short space of time. However, the random visitor is a different proposition altogether.

My informant said he had seen a couple of cubs in the corner of a field next door to the chap who had been visited by the fox. This was an overgrown plot of land with an absentee owner, presumably hoping to make a killing in development one day. As he lived in London, I assumed he would have no problem with me taking a look. Setting myself at the lowest point in the field on a warm evening, I waited with the Anschütz .22LR – ideal for the close-range cub.

This turned out to be one of my better evenings. From my position I could see the whole of the scrubby field, and I could also shoot into the hillside with complete safety. I had been in position for about an hour when I saw a cub stalking a rabbit. At about 30 yards, it was soon despatched. I stayed where I was. The other cub appeared about 10 minutes later, and I dealt with him similarly. As it was a warm evening, I decided to stay put a bit longer. Not surprisingly, the vixen showed up and went the same way as her offspring. I went via my friend’s house on the way back to the 4×4, and was rewarded with a substantial glass of malt.

This problem had been an easy one to sort out – the random visits stopped from then on. I later found where the earth had been. It was no more than 80 yards from his back door, yet he had never actually seen a fox there. A good example of how a bit of local knowledge can make the job that much easier. Mike Powell

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