Field foxing

Robert Bucknell awaits the arrival of the harvest as the foxes continue to evade him in the high cover

Credit:Kevin Pronnecke / Getty Images

I’ve still very few foxes to report but it’s been quite a year for squirrels, as I mentioned last month – they seem to have had an outstanding breeding season. Colin the keeper has been getting stuck in to the little so-and-sos and he’s had around 70, and I’ve shot over 30 myself with the .17 HMR, so that’s 100 gone – and there are still plenty more.

They must have made the most of that dry time in late spring to breed, as we thought we had whittled their numbers well down at the end of the shooting season. They are also good practice for fox shooting as they seldom sit still for long and their movements can be unpredictable. Getting a good shot away also gives satisfaction knowing you have removed a nasty predator of songbirds.

We keep our pheasant feeders going all year round, topped up with grain for the benefit of all sorts of wildlife as well as the game birds, so that’s the obvious place to also find the squirrels. All you need to do is sit quietly within range of the feeder and wait.

It won’t be long before they start to appear. The best time to ambush them is first thing in the morning or late afternoon when they wish to go bed with a full tum. All the different creatures have their favourite times.

The pheasants, partridges and other birds feed through the daytime, when they can see any predator sneaking up, then the ducks turn up on or just after dark. Later on, the night shift arrives – badgers, mice, deer and any rats – if you have them. 

Colin the keeper has been setting up the partridge pens in our maize cover strips. The job is a lot easier done early, before the maize grows too big – at least this year we’re growing a ‘wild bird mix’, that includes a whole lot of other things as well as maize, to comply with the latest EU rules.

Shooters got very upset about the government mucking about with the General Licences earlier this year, but that’s nothing compared to what we farmers have to put up with every year! We wait to see if this works, as our frost-resistant maize usually does not put up with competition from rival plants.

Anyway, back to the foxes. The last few months we’ve seen few foxes on the place, and I wrote last month that we’d be clear of foxes until the cubs turn up – and that’s exactly what happened.

In fact Colin’s even been getting a bit bored with no foxes to deal with, which is why the squirrels have taken such a hammering, and we applied for an individual licence for corvid control so he was able to keep the Larsen traps running while the General Licence debacle was on.

Robert on a night-time foray on the neighbouring farm where he has permission

But he’s not neglected to keep a look out for foxes, sitting up over the cover crops for a few evenings while they’re still low enough that a fox crossing the strip to be visible.

He spotted the signs that there were cubs about on one strip, so he set up at the back of the adjacent spinney to see what would happen. About 300 yards away he saw a cub come out of the standing wheat and cross into the spinney.

He was pretty certain he saw another cub too, but couldn’t be sure. So he started squeaking, trying different calls, but that’s not often much use with cubs – if there was such things as an earthworm or moving beetle call, maybe that would work!

So no joy for him that night, but he made sure to return the following night for another go. It’s not easy at this time of year though – more often than not you’ll see something flitting through the cover but won’t be able to get a bead on it. So he was back the next night, and the next, steadily moving his high seat closer to the spot the fox cubs were using.

Eventually one came out – not where he expected it to of course – but he moved fast and that one caught a bullet. Knowing there was another cub about, he waited, but nothing appeared.

Checking the area over the next few days, he decided the second cub must have moved on. There’s a pond at that end of the spinney, which always attracts cubs in dry weather, but since we had rain the pond is no longer such a draw.

As yet, he hasn’t been able to find where the fox cub has moved on to, but he did find a big fox scat behind the village, so that set his hunter’s instincts going again.

He got stuck in, putting baits out and working out the angles for a high seat, and was really looking forward to waiting up for it. Then someone came into the farmyard and said, “Have you seen that a fox has been run over up near the village?”

Colin went to look, and sure enough there was a big red pelt on the road with two little black ears sticking up at one end. He went back and checked his baits, looked for tracks and signs – but nothing. The fox he was getting excited about hunting had gone and walked in front of a car and saved him the challenge.

I looked over our hayfields as they were cut and saw precisely zero foxes. Then, just as I thought there was nothing out there, I came across a set of shiny eyes at the top end of a 14-acre field that had been cut and crimped two days before.

Watching through the thermal, I waited nearly an hour for it to slowly mouse its way to my end of the field. A soft mouse squeak set it moving away before that fatal look back, and a dark old dog fox was in the bag. Calling is often counterproductive these days.

I’ve also been spending a few nights sat up in the high seat in the willow bed near our boundary. It’s a good spot because we cut the grass and cover there, so it doesn’t compete with the willows. I watched through the thermal as some fallow deer came out in the field behind me to feast on our soya beans.

Everything loves to eat soya – pigeons, crows, rooks, rabbits and of course deer. If only vegans understood how much wildlife has to be killed to save the crop and provide their ‘cruelty free’ food!

Eventually they came round behind me and then were crashing about nibbling the tender young bramble shoots in the hedge. One particularly loud crash made me turn round and I saw that one of them had come through to my side.

It stood there looking at me from about five yards, didn’t like what it saw and crashed back away through the bramble. I looked through the thermal and for a minute couldn’t work out why I could still see a large thermal signature in the bramble. Then I realised it had wet itself with fright, and I was looking at a big patch of warm urine!

I sat there for a long while and saw nothing remarkable – just hares, rabbits and bats – until eventually about midnight I tired of watching them and decided to do a bit of ‘legal poaching’.

I have an open invitation to go on the neighbour’s land, where there is a long valley, and I knew they had cut their grass for silage so the low-lying meadows should be clear. I travelled along the first field, which had been baled and carted, went through the gap in the cross hedge, and spotted a pair of eyes in the lamp.

I swapped to the thermal viewer to check and, yes, it was a fox – only about 80-100 yards away, but all I could see was a pair of ears sticking up above the run of cut grass. They had swathed the field up for bailing, but that wouldn’t be happening until tomorrow.

Few things are more frustrating than watching a fox like that and not being able to take a clear shot. I tried a mouse call but it took no notice and continued gradually working away from me, just pottering about looking for earthworms or whatever. 

I gently drove forward between the swaths a little way in the hope of getting a better angle, but it was the same story. If I’d taken the shot, the bullet would have gone through the grass at an indistinct and moving target, and there’s no future in that.

Time spent in the high seat also reaps dividends – even if it’s only fallow that show up

It moved around a corner in the field, so I drove on around the bend and suddenly, it was right in front of me – I nearly ran the blessed thing over! That was too much for the fox, which bolted off, never to be seen again. It had been the other side of some grass left around a drain hole and had decided that five yards was too close.

So after all that I had no fox to show for my efforts. I told the keeper on the neighbours land there’s one around, and I’ll pop back and see if I can catch up with it another time. It just shows that even with some good kit and using your best skills, luck plays a big part, especially this time of year when there’s so much cover around. Things will be different soon, as the crops come off and any foxes are likely to be in clear view, but we shall see…

It just shows that even with some good kit and using your best skills, luck plays a big part, especially this time of year when there’s so much cover around. Things will be different soon, as the crops come off and any foxes are likely to be in clear view, but we shall see…

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