Robert Bucknell relates his early days in the foxing world – and gives some invaluable advice on how you can get into the sport today
I am extremely lucky in that, being brought up on a farm, the countryside was always on my back doorstep. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been foxing, in
the way we picture it now, all my life. In fact, back when I started out, most people didn’t do any fox control.
Foxes in those days were something the farmer or gamekeeper sorted out, or maybe you knew a chap from your rough shoot who was known as the vermin killer.
They all got on with their jobs very quietly and, apart from when there was a hunt day coming up, could do what they wanted. For the most part, the rest of us didn’t know what was going on!
I mentioned the hunt, and that’s another reason fox control wasn’t done
on an individual level. This was back in the pre-ban days, and they wanted their sport – so if you had a problem fox, more often than not you’d hand it over to the hunt. You didn’t really get involved at all – you told the huntsman you had a problem and left him to sort it out.
All in all, unless you dealt with cubs in the spring when foxes were harassing your lambs, you barely did anything that could be described as ‘foxing’. There wasn’t a fraction of the level of this type of control that there is now.
Now, to an extent, things have turned on their head. Hunts can’t kill foxes in that way, and individual shooters are going around killing foxes and talking about it (and putting it in magazines!) It’s been a total change. People are doing it as a sport – not just because they have to.
On the other hand, it all still contributes to the same end. The people who take it on in a sporting manner are still helping game shoots, farmers, poultry keepers, on grouse moors and wildlife reserves.
There are loads of reasons for trying to keep fox numbers down to a pretty low level, and everyone can help with that, no matter who they are.
From past to present
The way I got started foxing wasn’t with a rifle at all – it was snaring foxes to stop them taking the chickens, which were all free-range. They were let out in the morning and shut up at night.
The biggest problem we had was when you’d get a vixen desperate to feed cubs who would come and take the chickens during the day. Sometimes you could catch them just by following where the trail of feathers went to and sticking a snare in the hedge. Or you could sit out with a gun because you knew roughly what time of day she came through.
It was all done with shotguns back then. Rifles were very few and mainly .22LR. Everything was short-range – I loaded my single-shot 12-bore with heavy BB shot and at that range it was very effective. It seems incredible to say now, but back then heavy shot was the cutting edge of technology!
The only other time we came across foxes was if you went on a rough shoot, or a posher organised shoot. Often on the rougher end, if a fox came out you’d pull the trigger; but on a driven shoot with gamekeepers and so on, it was considered very bad form to have a go at a fox, because you were meant to leave them for the hunt.
My shooting life quickly graduated into going out with a shotgun, trying to work out where a fox was going to wander past, and trying not to do too much damage when I shot it because the pelt was worth something! From there I went on to a .22, and the next leap was to get a centrefire.
The shift in technology and numbers in circulation, where rifles have been concerned, is quite something. I wonder how many .223s there are in the country now – there was a huge wave of people trying it, telling their mates, and soon it became an industry standard. But the wide choice of calibres in centrefires is terrific compared to only a few years ago.
And scopes came on too. We started off with a fixed 4x scope – there wasn’t much else available. Then some of the variables came in, and at the start some of them were unreliable and shifted focus as you changed power. That’s something you would never hear about now.
The magnification continued to go up, and to some extent the cost came down. These days, you can buy a top-quality scope with limited lifetime warranty and take its superb quality for granted.
I’ve had people say to me that, on a bright moonlit night, depending on the background, you can use a day scope to shoot unaided – they are just that good.
Quality scopes will give you an extra 10 minutes at start and finish – it doesn’t sound a lot, but that may well be that last 10 minutes of useable light when a fox feels it is safe to come out and slip around the corner and you can still see it!
Back then, everything at night was done under a lamp, so you’d need a battery too – which was often a big weighty lump. Again, battery technology has come on in leaps and bounds and bears no comparison to what we have now.
The bulb in the lamp would be a standard filament bulb filled with argon gas – totally different to the bulbs available now. LED is now the way to go – little battery drain, loads of run time.
I know many people who still use a lamp, but often they’re using a thermal spotter too – calling the fox in and then switching the lamp on for a day scoped rifle. For most foxes that works just fine, the old technology can still bag foxes.
On the other hand, once you go over to thermal there’s no coming back. There’s very little thermal kit that goes onto the second-hand market, which tells you something.
The basis of anyone’s advanced kit today would be a thermal spotter. Some of them are quite sensibly priced now. Once you’ve got one, it opens up so many more possibilities. I get people saying to me, ‘It’s great fun just watching a fox going about its business.’
Before, whenever you saw one, there was an almighty rush to get onto it and pull the trigger, because you might not get another chance. With thermal, you have the luxury of quietly waiting until Charlie turns up. When it does, you can just sit and watch.
They are undisturbed so you wait to see what their up to. For me if it’s working in my direction, I won’t bother to call – there’s no rush, you are the master of the situation.
It allows you to learn about foxes. As my fellow Sporting Rifle scribe Mike Powell says, you don’t learn anything from a dead fox. You’re putting your wits against something that doesn’t make too many mistakes but by watching its ways and then trying to turn the tables against it there is always that challenge.
Thermal also makes things easier when it’s triggertime. You have that added space to set up the shot. You might be watching a fox working and you think, ‘I won’t call because the wind’s not right… I’ll let it get to that point there, give a little squeak and see what it does. If it reacts and starts to look uneasy, I won’t call anymore because it may be call-shy.’
Because you’re using thermal, you can bide your time. With just a lamp, you’ll only ever have a few opportunities when the fox is in the right place. But with thermal up goes your chance of that controlled steady shot.
I suppose I’ve been lucky to see so much foxing progress in one lifetime. I started off with an airgun or a small shotgun – a No 3 garden gun was the first thing I ran around with – shooting sparrows, which of course are protected now.
It’s a far cry from the kit we now have, which is almost over-engineered. It’s a job to actually choose your kit, there’s so much on offer – whereas it used to be fairly easy to know what you wanted – because there wasn’t much to choose from!
And the sport of amateur foxing has grown immeasurably too – though the word ‘amateur’ is misleading here, as some of the recreational fox shooters I know have loads of top kit and take the task very seriously. If they’re told there’s a fox in the area, they are quickly out and the fox doesn’t last very long.
How to get involved
The main way into foxing is to get out in the countryside and the shooting communities it contains. You may already be out there among them. If not, it’s about asking round who has local shoots or farms with small stock, which gamekeepers might need a hand… if you have a dog that’s capable of picking up, get to a shoot and offer your services.
Or are you just able to turn up and lend a hand at other times – feeding, rearing birds and so on? Gamekeepers and syndicates are often very busy and will appreciate the help. Farmers tend to be a lot more wary of letting people on to their land, especially with a firearm.
Approaching people ‘cold’ is difficult, but half the battle is just asking in person. Sometimes you might just be down a country pub on a Saturday and see a load of muddy people come in. Start talking to them, and you’ll learn all about the local shoot.
You could discover an entire bunch of shooters that you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
Kit-wise, you’ll most likely need a rifle, scope and some suitable night-shooting equipment. If you’re worried about how much getting into foxing will cost you, remember: you can always use a lamp.
I still use a lamp for searching, even though I’ve got a thermal imagaer. A lot of the time you can put the lamp over the top of a fox, give a little squeak and see what happens.
You won’t see many people using shotguns on foxes these days. In some places – particularly Wales and the West Country – they do a bit of fox driving, and they may be after someone reliable who can bowl over a fox at 40 yards.
In Scotland hunts can still shoot foxes. Of course, everybody’s looking at you in those circumstances, so there’s a lot of pressure – so don’t put yourself forward if you aren’t confident! But if you can break the bolting rabbit on a clay ground consistently at different angles, they may be happy to give you a try.
Another approach is to start off by finding a foxer and helping them. It may just be driving around and holding a lamp, not actually doing the shooting.
But you’re learning all about the trade.
It they find out you can shoot straight under pressure they may encourage you to take a turn– but serving you apprenticeship will bring its rewards. Just turning out on your own thinking a fox is going to come charging out to the first call and you squeezing the trigger, seldom works.
You’ll find that your help foxing is welcomed in many places. But don’t push it too far and try to take over. It will go down badly if you try to muscle in and think you can push out somebody else.
Try and work as a team. On my land there’s Colin the Keeper and we’ve got Nigel who looks after the deer, and Pete the squirrel who lives up to his nickname over the feed stations, other people who come and pick up or go beating on the shoot.
In other words, it’s not just the foxing that may be on offer. The horizons will broaden quickly once you start off. Offering to turn up with an airgun, for example, and reliably knock off some small vermin, could get you further than you think.
A few final pointers to keep you in the good books: Turn up when you say you will. Tell people when you’re going to be there, so they don’t get surprised when they see a vehicle on their land unexpectedly. Report back – don’t just work in isolation, be part of the team.
Always be reliable and truthful, especially about misses! For a lot of people, letting you go foxing is about having another set of eyes on the place. They can’t be everywhere, and especially if you’re using thermal, to an extent you’ll almost replace the missing village bobby, because you see what’s going on in the dark. And never give up on any task until it’s done!