Recently we’ve started to see the odd fox moving onto the ground here. Having done a thorough job early in the year, I could be fairly confident there were very few foxes on the place all through summer and early autumn. It pays to be vigilant, of course, so there was no let-up in our efforts to keep watch over the ground. I spent many a blank evening sitting in a high seat watching with the thermal and seeing – well, not nothing, because there’s always plenty of wildlife, but no foxes at any rate.
Then, one Thursday night early in November, I had a call out of the blue from the lad who uses a red lamp and airgun to keep down the rabbits on the small airstrip we have on the farm. There’s a little pocket of rabbits there that have escaped the VHD that has decimated them across much of the country. It sweeps through a rabbit colony and kills the lot in a matter of days. In a way, the disease is too effective for its own good – often infected rabbits die before they get the chance to wander off and infect the next group. This little colony on the present airfield reminds me of those villages in the time of the Black Death that were able to cut themselves off from the rest of the world and came through it unscathed.
Anyway, back to our airgunner and his 11pm phone call. He was alerting me to a fox. “Quick,” he urged, “there’s one out on the airfield right now.” Of course I grabbed the rifle and jumped in the truck, half expecting it would be a wild goose chase. Sure enough, by the time I arrived on the scene the fox had vanished, and try as I might I was unable to discover where it had got to. Searching the fields through the thermal showed the partridge coveys had been scattered.
That marked the beginning of the autumn reshuffle, when foxes are gearing up for the mating season and starting to travel around the countryside in search of new territory. By the time you read this, any self-respecting dog fox will have one thing on his mind: having his wicked way with as many vixens as possible. The vixens themselves will be shouting, “Come and get it, boys,” and all hell breaks loose – a bit like the streets of certain towns at chucking-out time on a Saturday night…
Food can be important, too, at this time of year, and a cold snap certainly gives their hunger an edge. It depends where you are. A fox living on a grouse moor may have to hunt long and hard to find a meal, while his urban cousin can snuffle round the bins, jump on a bird table or eat the food that some kind soul has left out for the badgers and hedgehogs – which are hibernating anyway! – and then get back to chasing the ladies. At least any meat bait lasts longer with the cold.
I knew that this first intruder on the airfield was likely to stick around – after all, it’s a nice vacant territory with all sorts of game birds as well as the rabbits as potential food. I didn’t have enough time to sit out for an evening. So over the next two nights I made several visits and swung the lamp across the 400-acre wartime airfield to see what was around. On Friday and Saturday night I could tell that something was around. Not that I saw it, but again the partridges told me.
The advantage of using thermal imaging is you can easily make out the coveys all snug, jugging down on the open fields, perhaps a sentry or two with heads up looking out for danger. If you go back a few hours later and they’re still there, then all’s well. If, on the other hand, they have scattered all over the place, then clearly something has been through and scared them. It could be just a deer or a hare, of course, but if they’re spread far and wide more likely it is a fox.
This told me the fox was still around so I kept up my patrols, and eventually on my second sweep of the night, at 1.30am on the Sunday, I caught a flash of eye at 500 yards across the far side of a 40-acre field. I killed the lamp, swung round, set myself up and scanned with the thermal.
A few hares stood out clearly on the plough, showing up as warm blobs, but away in the distance there was a larger blob that might be a fox. As I watched, a covey of partridges burst up in front of it and a hare ran away. Yes, I was 99 per cent sure now, but it was still 400 yards away. Not wanting to risk a loud call straight away, I tried a little mouse squeak. It shows how good their hearing is – even at this distance the fox trotted closer, then sat down to listen.
Now I’d got the fox’s interest, it sat for five minutes, then stood and gradually began to make its way towards me. I was careful not to overdo it. All the while the fox was heading my way, I kept quiet. If it seemed to be deviating off course, I’d give it another little squeak. Nothing too long or loud, just enough to keep it coming.
Over ten minutes, gradually the fox came closer. It was a bit misty, so I knew that might cause a problem when I switched on the IR lamp on the digital Photon NV riflescope. Thermal cuts through mist with no trouble, but the water droplets scatter infra-red in the same way as white light. You get that flareback effect, making it hard to see through.
When the fox got to about 200 yards I already had the rifle lined up, and I switched on the IR at its lowest setting. That’s one of the advantages of using thermal for spotting. You don’t need to wave a light around, even an IR one. You already know where the fox is, and you can get the scope and light pointed in the right direction before turning on. Then you can just lower the light gently onto the fox, with no flashing it about all over the place with the possibility of alarming the fox. You can even hold the thermal to your left eye while you look through the Yukon with your right.
The fox was pottering along but still heading roughly in my direction, so I resisted the temptation to give another squeak. It almost seemed to be interested in the IR light source – I could see it stand and look quizzically at the lamp – but then it came on a little more. By now I reckoned it was about 100 yards away, and I could just make out the white chest in the riflescope. I didn’t want to turn up the illumination any more as it seemed to have spotted that already, but by now I could see enough. I squeezed off the shot.
There was a good thump from the other end and I saw the eyes drop to the ground. All the signs suggested the shot was good, and there was no more sign of movement. I was confident of a clean kill, and as I didn’t have my boots on, I asked Colin if he could pick it up in the morning. Sure enough it lay there dead, a big old dog fox with worn teeth, so it had been around a while. Judging by the evidence it had been hunting hard every night for the partridges on the fields, the constant disturbance is as bad as any victims it seizes.
Since then I have made a trip out to another piece of ground, on the outskirts of a nearby large town. I was hosting a chap who had bid for a night’s foxing with me in a charity auction organised by Mark Ripley. I hadn’t been to this other farm for a while, so I was confident we would definitely see more foxes there than on my home ground.
The winning bidder, Peter, brought his CZ .223 with a day scope on top, so it was back to the old technology of calling a fox in close enough and then shooting with visible light. It turned out to be a good night. I reckon we saw seven or eight foxes in all, but being surrounded by busy roads they have learned to be wary of bright white lights so we weren’t making things easy for ourselves – plus with the houses and roads we had to be very careful about safety angles.
Even so we managed four foxes for four shots, so Pete went home happy. It helped that it wasn’t all old tech. I was able to use the thermal to spot them and watch as we called them in, only switching on the white light when we were ready to shoot, then gently lowering the lamp onto them with a nice steady beam. Pete is an experienced shot, capable under pressure, and with a steady rest on the back of the truck he did the job very efficiently.
So that’s what we’ve been up to lately, and as winter tightens its grip I expect to see more foxes trying to move in, so if we’re going to protect the wildlife and game birds, dress up warm since we can’t afford to let our guard slip.